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

Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key Stage 1

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key S...

Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher We have a fantastic special n...

Tradewind Recruitment: History Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an 11-18 all ability co-educat...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: Every privatised corner of the NHS would be taken back into public ownership

Philip Pullman
 

Errors & Omissions: Magna Carta, sexing bishops and ministerial aides

John Rentoul
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee