Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear?

By Lev Parikian

A lapsed and hopeless birdwatcher’s attempt to see 200 birds in a year

Friday, 10 June 2016

What's it all about?

It’s been quite a month. When I pitched Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? to Unbound, I did so more in hope than expectation. Their enthusiasm for the project has been a brilliant surprise, and the support I’ve received from numerous pledgers in the short period since the book was launched doubly so. Just two weeks into the campaign we’ve reached 30%.

*airpunch* *sidestrain*

A THANK YOU the size of Kent goes out to you all.

So what’s it all about?

On the one hand it’s a simple adventure story. Will I see 200 species of British bird in a year? Bear in mind that I am limited by the rustiness of whatever birdwatching skills I once possessed, and this target looms large. Was that a house sparrow or a chaffinch that just flew into that bush in a desperate attempt to escape my gaze? Or maybe a much-rarer-than-it-used-to-be tree sparrow? I DON'T KNOW. And that's part of the story – the elusiveness of birds and my fumbling efforts to find and identify them.

But there’ll be more to it than “today I saw a wood pigeon and a blackbird. They were nice. Yesterday I saw a greenfinch and a great tit. They were nice too. The day before…”

For a start, I live in London – not many ptarmigan on Clapham Common – so there’ll be an element of travelogue as I scour the country for that elusive woodlark/kittiwake/bar-tailed godwit. So far I’ve been to a few RSPB sites, including their flagship centre at Minsmere, where I saw so many birds I woke up the next morning with feathers in my mouth (they might have been from the threadbare pillow at the hotel, mind). I’ve also visited the WWT at their London site and their headquarters at Slimbridge. Closer to home there’s also been the recently opened Woodberry Wetlands, a little miracle in Stoke Newington curated by the London Wildlife Trust. And there’ll be plenty more besides if I’m going to make it, casting my net wider and wider as enthusiasm changes to desperation. All in the name of ‘research’.

When I go birding, I talk to people. They’re mostly friendly and helpful, and chat for a minute or two and you find that everyone has a story. Some are funny, some moving, some a little disturbing. There'll be plenty of those.

And then there’s the nostalgia. As I’ve embarked on these trips, I’ve found myself swamped with memories. It turns out that the sight of a green woodpecker’s undulating flight is as evocative to this middle-aged man as the smell of linseed oil (cricketers will understand). It’s like owning a time machine.

But at the heart of the book is my rediscovery of the glorious variety of the avian world. Birds are, frankly, bloody miraculous, and I’ve spent most of the last six months kicking myself for ignoring them for so long. As well as the story of the quest for 200, I’ll be devoting mini-chapters to 11 of my favourites. The trouble is, the shortlist so far numbers about 80. All suggestions gratefully received. Do you have a favourite bird? Or an unfavourite? Would you like me to feature it in Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? This is what the comments section is for. Go for it.

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