Birdwatching: Field Behaviour
Field behaviour is one aspect of birdwatching in which some people can be rather weak. Two points must always be remembered: firstly, most land, even the foreshore, belongs to someone; secondly, it is important to show a deep concern for the welfare of the birds. Unless you happen to know that a landowner does not object to the public entering his land such as, for instance, the Crown Commissioners who are responsible for the foreshore, you should get permission to enter.
Rights of way throughout the country are very good when local authorities keep them clear, and they enable people to pass and repass through a wide variety of private lands. A map showing rights of way can usually be seen at the County Surveyor’s office. You can copy them onto your own Ordnance Survey map as the paths shown on this are not necessarily rights of way.
A number of different codes of conduct have been drawn up for people visiting the country. Most elements of the codes are common sense but it does us all good periodically to think whether in one respect or another we have been thoughtless and so I will repeat here the Countryside Commission’s Country Code:— Guard against all fire risks. Fasten all gates. Keep dogs under proper control. Keep to paths across farmland. Avoid damage to fences, hedges and walls. Leave no litter. Safeguard. Protect wildlife, wild plants and trees. Go carefully on country roads. Respect the life of the country. The warning to respect the life of the country is needed, particularly in relation to trespass and sometimes in relation to damage to private property. Also, there have been a number of instances where rare birds have been harried by over-keen listers who have put their own private gratification before the welfare of the bird.
The Protection of Birds Acts 1954-67 are really codes of conduct for all those who are interested in birds. The theme of the Acts are that all wild birds and their nests and eggs are protected. Anything which physically harms them or their nests, eggs or young is forbidden. Some species which are particularly endangered in this country are given special protection, and if anyone commits an offence in respect of them, they are liable to serious fines. Fines too are imposed for offences against commoner birds. Game birds like some of the ducks, pheasants and partridges may be shot in the open season which usually begins in the early autumn and ends before birds begin breeding. There is evidence that certain species like Woodpigeons, House Sparrows and even the beautiful Bullfinches, in the south-east of England, can be pests and a section in the Acts allows authorized people to shoot these species and others listed on the Second Schedule to the Acts.
The birdwatcher has to be particularly careful about disturbance to rare birds listed on the First Schedule to the Acts. A section in the 1967 Act made the wilful disturbance of wildbirds listed in this Schedule while they are near an occupied nest an offence liable to a special penalty. This has led to some rather peculiar situations in places like Shetland where birds such as Whimbrels, which are in the First Schedule, are very common and where it is virtually impossible to walk over certain moors without wilfully disturbing them. Theoretically, while the botanist or the shepherd may walk across these moors because they do not recognize the alarm calls of the Whimbrel, the conscientious birdwatcher hearing the calls should leave the area as soon as possible. However, the principle behind this particular law is important and is to some extent covered by the Birdwatcher’s Code. If you should wish to disturb one of these First Schedule birds for scientific purposes, or to photograph or ring them, you should obtain the approval of the Nature Conservancy Council. In the case of ringing or nest recording permission can be obtained through the BTO.
The importation of various species of birds is forbidden under the Protection of Birds Act. More recently Parliament has enacted the Endangered Species (Import and Export) Act 1976 which has the effect of implementing some form of control over the import and export of some of the rarest animals, and plants of Britain and the world. For instance, the falcons, such as the Peregrine Falcon, are listed in the First Schedule, which means that anyone wishing to import one must not only obtain a licence from the country into which he wishes to import the bird but also an export licence from the country of origin. This procedure gives the Scientific Authority of both countries a chance to assess the status of the bird and whether its export or import will be harmful to its native population.
The RSPB’s Birdwatcher’s Code begins with the words: ‘The welfare of the birds and its nest should be your first consideration’, and this thought should be with you all the time. The BTO produces at least two codes of conduct, one for ringing and one for those who take part in its nest record scheme. The RSPB and the Zoological Photographic Society has published a code of conduct for bird photographers. Each code emphasizes that ‘the bird’s interest must come first’ and then deals with the more practical damage that carelessness on the part of people ringing, nest recording or photographing can do.
A bird’s nest is one of the most sensitive places in its life and it is the centre of attraction for many birdwatchers. Some may wish to find nests because they enjoy the search. Others will be recording data for the nest record scheme of the BTO. Bird ringers want to find nests because they wish to ring young so that they may later be able to age the birds more exactly and so follow its life through. Some may be carrying out life-history studies and the nest is where life begins. There are other people who still collect birds’ eggs even though it has long been forbidden by law. Only rarely are they collected for any good scientific reasons. Constant examination of the nest can also put it at risk either by causing the bird to desert or by destroying the natural cover or even by making a track to the nest, which predators can easily follow.
The point about codes and laws is that they spell out certain rules for those who have no real feeling for the countryside nor for the creatures that live in it. To the real naturalist who has a feeling or a love for the countryside the ethic comes naturally.