Terence Blacker: It's suddenly fashionable to be a birdwatcher

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The Independent Online

We have just witnessed a consummate promotional coup which, like the best and most sophisticated kind of publicity, appeared to be something entirely different. About half a million people, in towns and in the country, have been persuaded to spend an hour of their weekend engaged in an act of group responsibility which, in many cases, also involved standing around outside at the coldest time of the year.

Unlike many triumphs of PR, the effects of this one will continue over the next three weeks and beyond, providing a sense of involvement and pleasure for adults and children. Birds, it seems, have some cunning brains working on their behalf.

It will be claimed, with a certain amount of justification, that the Big Garden Birdwatch, organised by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, was much more than a publicity stunt, that it was, in the words of one report, "the world's largest annual exercise in citizen science". Certainly the findings - six million birds were recorded by 400,000 people in 200,000 gardens in 2005, and the figures will go up this year - will provide guidance as to the rises and declines in certain species, but I suspect that they will be of a distinctly broad-brush kind.

Birdwatchers, particularly fledglings of the breed, tend to be imaginative and optimistic in their sightings - every briefly glimpsed wren is a potential goldcrest, and every goldcrest must surely be the much rarer firecrest. The inevitable element of neighbourly competition involved in a national survey will increase the temptation for people to exaggerate and treat their Canada geese as Bewick's swans.

There have already been some distinctly dubious sightings among birds spotted by participants who have eagerly reporting their findings online. The RSPB's rules for the survey stipulate that it should last an hour and that only birds that land in the garden should be noted. Under those circumstances, it is surprising to read that those large, rather rare birds of prey, red kites, curlews and merlins, a particularly wild type of falcon, are among species seen pottering around the nation's bird tables.

A bit of exaggeration is perhaps to be expected. Around here, the clock started the instant three bullfinches were sighted over the pond. The temptation to add a few extra minutes for the return of such regular visitors as fieldfares, redwings and long-tailed tits, all of which let us down badly during the designated hour, proved almost irresistible. If the area's new ornithological VIP, a barn owl, had been seen hunting over a nearby field, such would have been my pride and excitement that the survey's landing-not-flying condition may well have been forgotten.

Events like the Big Birdwatch reveal almost as much about human attitudes to wildlife as they do about the decline of the starling, the rowdy progress from the South-east of the ring-necked parakeet, and other avian developments. Not so long ago, there were few more derided national types than birdwatchers, geeky trainspotter-types in their bobble-hats forever peering through their binoculars and making busy little ticks and notes in their Collins field guides. Now birds are as fashionable as could be, and it is those who are blind to them who are likely to seem foolish and deprived.

In the better newspapers, hardly a day goes by without some kind of ornithological story appearing on the news pages. Last week, the headlines belonged to ravens, doing well apparently, parakeets, who are the new hooligans on the block, and white-tailed eagles, who are paying the price for our obsession with wind turbines; before them it was peregrine falcons in the news, or nightingales, house sparrows, the albatross.

On television, Bill Oddie has by some mysterious process become a national treasure, while bestsellers like Mark Cocker's and Richard Mabey's Birds Britannica and Simon Barnes's How to Be a Bad Birdwatcher have had their publishers chirruping like robins in spring.

Gradually, the old idea that interest in wildlife, and general responsibility for it, essentially resides with leather-skinned country-dwellers has been breaking down. Of those 200,000 gardens, a large number will have been in towns and suburbs. We have heard much about the responsibility of the stupider and greedier type of farmer for the decline in songbirds, through their grubbing up of ditches, ploughing of headlands and irresponsible use of pesticides. Less obvious has been a trend which has seen householders whose land very often consists of little more than a small garden, a patch of ground or a balcony encouraging the revival of various species with bird tables, nesting boxes, and care.

One expert recently described the growing tendency of chiffchaffs and blackcaps to take advantage of the milder winters and stay in England rather than migrate to Africa as "evolution in action". The Big Garden Birdwatch shows that attitudes evolve, too. Thanks to organisations such as the RSPB, people are beginning to question the assumption that the landscape is for human exploitation and that animals have to take their chance. Birds need help, and, rather impressively, are beginning to get it from a largely urbanised population.

Of course, they too play their part in the deal, repaying the debt by offering a daily reminder of nature's magnificence, variety and, above all, fragility.