Vicars get feathered flocks to watch over

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The Independent Online

The nation's vicars and priests should brace themselves for a host of jokes about "watching over their flocks" and "disappearing congregations".

They are being specially recruited by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) for a major study into the plight of one of Britain's fastest declining birds – the spotted flycatcher.

The diminutive grey-brown bird, with its off-white breast, streaked forehead and its insistent "see tk-tk" call, loves churchyards, cemeteries and rectories. "These places of refuge are ideal locations to help us learn more about its habits," said Richard Bradbury, an RSPB conservation biologist.

For the species, Muscicapa striata, is now on Britain's "red list" of endangered birds. Its numbers have fallen rapidly – by an estimated 78 per cent since 1970 to about 130,000 breeding pairs – leading the Government to make it a target species in its biodiversity action plan.

The Revd Wyn Beynon, who runs three rural parishes a couple of miles from the RSPB's headquarters in Sandy, Bedfordshire, is one of the clerical ornithologists that the society has recruited.

Studying and counting the spotted flycatchers that nest near his rectory in Potton, and his two other churches at Sutton and Cockayne Hatley, is a welcome diversion from ministering to his human congregation. "Both flocks are given to me. One of them I have to work at a bit and the other is a sheer gift – I just have to put up boxes for the birds," he said wryly. "One is a good deal easier to look after than the other."