Extravagant, yes, exotic, certainly – but black swans aren't as rare as you may think

Nature Studies: next year will see the publication of the most in-depth survey of the breeding and distribution of Britain’s birds ever carried out

Share
Fact File
  • 37 Confirmed number of black swan pairs nesting in Britain

On the whole, Britain doesn’t do spectacular when it comes to birds: our national character seems to fit well with something like the dunnock – small, unobtrusive and understated (although it does have a crazy sex life). So if we know anything about a spectacle such as the black swan, we know it’s an Aussie creature: it’s an icon of Australia. And similarly, if we know anything about the peacock, we know it’s from India: it’s India’s national bird. Far too magnificent for us.

It may surprise you to learn, therefore, that both of these extravagant emblems of tropical climes, familiar from ornamental lakes, ornamental gardens or wildlife parks, have taken a liking to Blighty more generally, and are alive and well and breeding, quite wild, in the British countryside. By the dozen.

At least 37 pairs of black swans and 22 pairs of peacocks have been confirmed as nesting wild in Britain, and with the former, the number of breeding pairs may be as high as 111, and with the latter, as high as 130.

This intriguing fact is but one of many which will be contained next year in the most in-depth survey of the breeding and distribution of Britain’s birds which has ever been carried out, entitled Bird Atlas 2007-11: the breeding and wintering birds of Britain and Ireland. Being produced by the British Trust for Ornithology, the new Bird Atlas is the fourth such (the others being atlases of breeding birds in 1976 and 1993, and a wintering bird atlas in 1986) and it is far and away the most comprehensive: the internet has made submission of records far easier, and the new survey is based on 20 million of them, a figure which is an order of magnitude greater than that for the last one.

Looking at 296 bird species in its 500-plus pages, what it shows above all is the comprehensive picture of avian increases and declines over the past 20 years: turtle doves, wood warblers, nightingales and lesser-spotted woodpeckers have all tumbled disastrously in numbers, whereas great-spotted woodpeckers, ravens, buzzards and little egrets have all soared. And for the first time, it takes a detailed look at  non-native species, which is where the black swan and the peacock come in.

Other foreigners are well-established too: Chinese geese and guinea fowl are also breeding, as well as a bird of prey, the news of whose presence here as a breeding species will electrify some birders: the Harris hawk from the US, widely used in falconry. Two pairs have now nested successfully in the wild in Britain.

When it appears next autumn, the new Bird Atlas will be pounced on by tens of thousands of wildlife enthusiasts for significant revelations of that sort. Yet one more significant fact about it is the identity of the lead author: it’s a woman.

The world of ornithology is overwhelmingly (if not exclusively) male, but the whole, mammoth four-year atlas project, 20 million records and all, has been co-ordinated by the BTO’s Dawn Balmer, who, for the record is 42, married with a six-year-old daughter, and has been a passionate birder since her childhood in the Shropshire countryside.

No one’s ever suggested there’s a glass ceiling for women in ornithology, but if there were, it would be heartening to know that the authorship of the most important bird book in Britain for years will officially be known as Balmer et al. 

Poppy, and lark, appeal

A call to older readers: I am trying to put something together on how abundant wildlife was in Britain 50 years ago and more, before intensive farming took hold and wrecked the countryside. If anyone has any particular or vivid personal memories of this abundance, such as showers of skylarks, clouds of butterflies or cornfields full of poppies, I’d be very happy to hear from them. Send an email to the address below.

m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk Twitter: @mjpmccarthy

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Consultant - London - £65,000 OTE.

£65000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Engineer - central London ...

Recruitment Genius: Physiotherapist / Sports Therapist

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Physiotherapist / Sports Ther...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Advisor

£8 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives / Advisors are required...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Day In a Page

Read Next
One 200ml bottle of codeine linctus contains three times the equivalent level of morphine you'd get in casualty if you broke your wrist  

The ‘war on drugs’ consistently ignores its greatest enemy: over-the-counter painkillers

Janet Street-Porter
The author contemplating what could have been  

I was a timid, kind, gentle-natured child, later to be spurned and humiliated – in short, the perfect terrorist-in-waiting

Howard Jacobson
Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable