You'll be lucky to hear the first cuckoo of spring

With declining bird populations, even if children do yearn to be twitchers, there's precious little to twitch at

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It may be sad but it isn't surprising to learn from yet another educational survey that the only birds most children recognise these days are robins and woodpeckers. Does it follow that Christmas cards and cartoons are more instructive than nature studies' teachers advising pupils about the treachery of cuckoos or the danger of getting too close to swans whose outstretched wings can break a man's arm.

It may be sad but it isn't surprising to learn from yet another educational survey that the only birds most children recognise these days are robins and woodpeckers. Does it follow that Christmas cards and cartoons are more instructive than nature studies' teachers advising pupils about the treachery of cuckoos or the danger of getting too close to swans whose outstretched wings can break a man's arm.

I'm talking out of my hat as usual. They don't teach nature studies at school anymore. Primary schools now have science studies which are more geared to getting kids to draw spaceships landing on the moon than drawing nice distinctions between the willow warbler, the chiff chaff and the grebe. One of my favourite books as a child was called Birds of Our Gardens, which as well as identifying the different species was packed with handy advice about making a tasty bird cake with lard and breadcrumbs and bits of bacon rind.

When he is having one of his rare expansive moments, my husband reminisces about growing up in Argyll. Because they were so isolated there was nothing much else to do but look at birds. The best times were at night when he would sneak off to a ruined castle in the loch where he would spend many happy hours strangling pigeons in the dungeons by torchlight.

The children were hugely impressed by this story of derring-do and begged to be taken to see the famous dungeons, scene of their father's heroic exploits. The castle has since been bought by a Surrey solicitor and tastefully refurbished. They sometimes have an open day which is how we managed to get in and make our way down the circular stone stairs to the once pigeon-infested dungeons. Alas, not a bird in sight, just streamlined work surfaces stacked with fishing tackle and computer accessories.

Educational shortcomings notwithstanding, the real reason that children don't know about birds is that apart from playing football or going on heavily supervised bike rides dressed in protective clothing, they don't spend a lot of time out of doors.

The other reason that the odds are so stacked against modern children knowing anything about birds is that even if they do yearn to be twitchers, there's precious little to twitch at with the bird population decreasing at such an alarming rate.

As a cat owner I take my share of responsibility for this depressing decline. I love everything about cats except for the fact that they kill birds. I don't care about rabbits or moles or voles or all the other creatures the cat drags backwards through the cat flap. It's the moorhen chicks she snaffled days after they were hatched last year or the wren's nest she snuck up on and demolished when their mother was out shopping. Here's an idea. Since cats are such independent animals, maybe there should be a ban on people owning them. Instead every street or village or block of flats should have a community cat - that way we could all do our bit to save the birds.

At least we don't actively hunt them like the wretched Italians and French who wait, loaded guns raised, for the migratory flocks of swallows and swifts returning to their nesting grounds from winter in Africa and blast them to bits. A food writer friend once told me about an extraordinary banquet he'd been to in France. The first course was a rare delicacy called Singing Larks. It looked very pretty, apparently, the tiny larks' heads protruding from a golden pastry crust, their beaks open as if they were in full song. The correct way to eat them, the host explained, was to rip off their heads before tucking in. Ugh.

I hope I'm doing my bit to encourage children to learn more about birds.Instead of giving small children Where's Spot picture books I send them a CD I came across in the British Library called Songs of Garden Birds. It's brilliant but whatever you do don't lose the accompanying crib sheet. Unless you're a latter day St Francis of Assisi you'll find it hard to distinguish the simple repetitive two-note tee-cher call of the great tit from the thinner, faster, sweeter sibilant song of the coal tit, though chances are you will easily recognise the pitchwoo chicerbiddy of the less common marsh tit. There are 52 garden birds on the CD. From black-headed gulls to owls to, yes, robins and woodpeckers.

Once the children have memorised them, they can progress like students moving from piano sonatas to full blown concertos to the next title in the series, Dawn Choruses. I think that's what they call educational play.

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