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Leading Article: The proper study of mankind is birds

IT IS a sign of the times that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has roughly as many members (860,000) as the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties put together. Many of the ornithologically inclined will have been out and about yesterday, eyes alert and binoculars at the ready, to see what species they could spot as part of the first World Birdwatch Day.

The joy of bird-watching is that it removes its enthusiasts from the confines of the human condition and brings them into communion with nature in all its innocence, variety and beauty. Birds delight visually, aurally and intellectually. The plumage of many of them ravishes the eye, be they kingfisher, bullfinch, barn owl or golden plover. The songs of others gladden the ear, be they robin, blackbird, thrush or fast-disappearing nightingale. To a bird lover, spring has not really sprung until the call note of the migratory chiff-chaff is heard, while the sound of a robin's early morning song is as lovely as any aria.

Bird behaviour is endlessly interesting, ranging from the miracle of their nest-building to the huge variations in their food-gathering habits and social characteristics: magpies, with their wheezing chuckle and predatory habits, are downright nasty; but what could be more enchanting than a flock of musically twittering goldfinches feeding together, or a flock of gossiping long- tailed tits? To be able to identify species by their call notes or flight profiles is a satisfying part of the bird-watcher's skill.

It is such quotidian pleasures that most frequently lift the ornithologist's heart, rather than the occasional excitement of spotting a rare or previously unseen species (the speciality of the much-mocked twitcher with his or her tripod-mounted telescopes). Travel brings its own thrills, ranging from the brilliant colouring and huge variety of tropical species to the more subtle excitement of observing domestic rarities at leisure.

Of one thing politicians can be sure, whatever colour their plumage may be: all those RSPB members will be judging them in part by their attitude to conserving the habitat of Britain's bird life. Much of this is migratory, so planning decisions affect other countries too. To subject traditional feeding grounds to commercial development damages not just this country's wildlife but an important part of a wider whole. Yesterday's World Birdwatch symbolised just that.