France’s football and rugby shirts are adorned with the strutting Gallic cockerel, Australians have shown their sense of humour with the comical emu and New Zealand’s national bird, the Kiwi, needs no further introduction. Some nations see birds as powerful symbols of patriotic pride. Like the USA, both German and Russian national crests carry eagle motifs.
Although the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has more than a million members and, as a nation, we spend more than £300million a year feeding tits, finches and thrushes in our gardens, it does seem incongruous that Britain has never adopted any of the 590-plus species recorded on our shores as a national emblem.
Now a ballot is being prepared to invite Britons to select an avian symbol to represent England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
This weekend sees the official launch of the National Bird Vote and, during the next eight months, we are being asked to choose a bird that represents all that is great about Britain.
The vote is being launched at Birdfair, the annual gathering of conservationists, birdwatchers and nature lovers at Rutland Water. The first stage will see the public choosing from a shortlist of 60 birds, to eventually whittle down to six finalists. Then, in the New Year, people will be able to vote for their number one choice, with the winner being announced next May.
Among the shortlisted birds are garden visitors such as the blackbird, house sparrow and starling along with some of our mightiest birds of prey such as the golden eagle, the osprey and the peregrine falcon. Birds enshrined in literature are also featured. Shelley’s skylark and Keats’s nightingale are joined by the cuckoo, kingfisher and tawny owl, the ominous night hunter described by Shakespeare in both Julius Caesar and Love’s Labour’s Lost.
The regal mute swan, comical puffin, cheeky magpie and diminutive wren are also in the initial group along with the red grouse, the only bird which does not turn up anywhere else in the world.
One of Britain’s leading ornithologists, TV presenter David Lindo, is the expert behind the public ballot. David, known throughout the birdwatching community as the Urban Birder, first thought of celebrating a national bird when he was at primary school in Wembley, north London.
He later organised a vote among his classmates, who went on to pick the humble house sparrow. Now, more than 40 years on, he has organised a team of experts to create an electoral mechanism in which voters can pick their six favourites before deciding on the eventual National Bird next year.
Importantly, what I am doing is not getting people to support their favourite bird, but to vote for the one they feel represents the best attributes of Britain
“When I was six, I told myself that when I grew up I would organise a vote for everyone to decide the country’s favourite bird,” said David. “A couple of years ago I realised that while other countries have a national bird, here in Britain we still do not have one.
“With a General Election taking place in 2015, there seems no better time to ask the public to choose a bird that embodies all the best things about our country. Importantly, what I am doing is not getting people to support their favourite bird, but to vote for the one they feel represents the best attributes of Britain. All 60 birds on our shortlist have a degree of Britishness about them, even those who only visit us in the summer. Take the cuckoo, it spends only a small part of its life here but it is enshrined in our literature and folklore.
At the other end of the scale, when you look at our birds scientifically, there are surprises about some of those we regard as fundamentally British. For instance, many robins that begin their lives here go on to migrate south for the winter, only to be replaced by robins that come from Europe to escape the cold. Each bird we have chosen in the initial group has its own character, from the fabled golden eagle, majestic, proud and ferocious, to the wren, which although small in size, has a loud voice and stands up for itself.
Lots of the elements in each of the birds represent how we want Britain to be seen by the rest of the world. By getting people’s minds focused on what wonderful bird life we have here in Britain, I hope it will also lead them to understand the importance of conservation. With this in mind, we will be engaging with schools throughout the vote, asking children to draw pictures and write poems about the birds as well as making ballot boxes which can be turned into nesting places for birds once the election is concluded. The result will coincide with the outcome of next May’s General Election and it is hoped the new Government will listen to the people and enshrine the public verdict with the official unveiling of Britain’s National Bird.”
The announcement of Britain’s public vote comes as a new book, National Birds Of The World by Ron Toft, looks at the 100 countries which have adopted a wide variety of species, from condors to tiny hummingbirds as patriotic emblems.
Writing in the foreword, the BBC’s Springwatch presenter Chris Packham says: “I think it would be a good idea if nations, states and regions now selected a bird in some kind of conservation crisis.
“This would draw attention to its plight and perhaps also help fuel its protection. This certainly helped the North American bald eagle when its numbers had become precarious. Maybe it would do the same for others. So forget the robin, how about having the lapwing as the British national bird?”
For more details of how to take part in the vote, see votenationalbird.com
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