Arts, Venue

Future Cities: Birds and the Built Environment

Listening to the backdrop of oystercatcher calls just beyond the Cley Marshes visitor centre, surrounded by a gallery of birding photography, I pulled out my pen and prepared.

Moving into a new house for second year, and having been faced with a bare garden (but for a meagre pear tree), hearing Mike Toms discuss the urbanisation of birdlife seemed to come at a perfect time. His intent was to evidence that within the British ecosystem, we all an enormous impact, both positive and negative, on the livelihoods of garden birds.

In terms of the positive, gardens have become a crucial habitat for birds, particularly corvids and pigeons, that primarily feed on seeds and nest on the flat roofs of houses. Opportunists like these thrive in the urbanised landscape, with over 50% of starlings and house sparrows now nesting in urban areas.

However, what I found most surprising, especially so as an avid birdwatcher, were the secretive risks that came with putting out supplementary feed. Diseases such as avian pox and trichomoniasis have become far easier to transmit due to contact around feeders, and as a result birds such as greenfinches have experienced a decline of over 30% in a single year. Furthermore, new habitats pose new threats through cats, vehicles and windows, each of which significantly affecting the adult mortality rate of garden birds.

Perhaps the most interesting point of Tom’s talk was the discussion of cultural service and disservice birds, and the biases of residents and the birds they hope to see in their garden. By hoping to entice birds of cultural service (such as tits and finches) and deterring birds of cultural disservice (pigeons, starlings and crows) we allow ourselves to affect British bird populations by stripping areas for birds to feed from, and providing them to others. Though biases such as this go largely ignored, it allows us to realise how we can unintentionally create a negative impact on the wildlife we adore so much.

In conclusion, all people, regardless of their interest, need a conscientiousness towards the habitats they have the largest influence over and a deeper understanding of how some relatively small changes can affect their gardens for the better. And in the wake of Extinction Rebellion and the climate crisis, the ability to understand our impacts on the world around us have become more important than ever.


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Oliver Shrouder

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August 2022
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