The Whinchat shows the importance of birds to humans

Bird of the Year 2023
Little bird, big

Bird of the year 2023 is the Whinchat. There is a big story behind the small, inconspicuous birdie. It should give people more food for thought than has been the case up to now.

Admittedly, the whinchat has so far flew under our attention radar. The robin had it better there. Red is more eye-catching than brown and more popular in the fashion world as well as a political color. Now, however, the Whinchat has been voted Bird of the Year 2023, and somehow this news touched us strangely this time, even though the election takes place every year. Perhaps because our perception of everything that is happening in the sky has recently been shaped primarily by depressing news about combat drones, combat helicopters, fighter jets or rockets?

The fact that the whinchat has now prevailed over the tree sparrow, the moorhen, the pied flycatcher and even the red-backed shrike can unfold an incredible fascination in times like these. A message to breathe gratefully. A piece of the old world, in which Bernhard Grzimek used to present some cute little animals in the first program in the evening in the series “A Place for Animals”. The past, of course, as always, transfigured by memory, but which somehow juts into this unsettling present in a reassuringly familiar way.

Martin Rümmler, bird protection expert at the German Nature Conservation Union (Nabu), calls the current winner a “really very nice little bird”. The Whinchat is easily overlooked from afar. But up close, it captivates with its eponymous red-brown breast plumage and distinctive white brow. Incidentally, this also gave him the middle name “Meadow Clown”.

It’s not as if the meadow clown could pass as a joker, because the whinchat doesn’t really have much to laugh about at the moment, as it appears in category two on the red list of breeding birds – highly endangered. “This is mainly due to its habitat, it is dependent on species-rich meadows with sufficient undergrowth for nesting and tall perennials for feeding,” says Rümmler. But exactly such meadows are becoming increasingly rare. In addition, the Whinchat is a ground breeder. Its nests are therefore under constant threat from predators, but above all from humans and their mowers. It is true that roaming house cats in Germany kill an estimated 30 million wild birds a year, but ultimately those who keep them are also responsible for this.

This puts us right in the middle of this exciting topic, which, like the whinchat, we have only noticed marginally so far: through strange contemporaries, for example, who feed pigeons in the cities, although the administration is making some efforts to ensure that these birds, which can grow up to ten Multiply once a year, do not spread further on squares and buildings. Or by the green and yellow parrots from the tropics, which meanwhile feel at home in this country, such as whole flocks of ring-necked parakeets in the center of Düsseldorf and Cologne. Not least because of the starlings, which – like fish – are fascinatingly on their way to a resting place in huge swarms.

Birds are still the world’s most widespread class of animals. They live on every continent and have done so for at least 150 million years. 10,752 species are known, of course mainly to those who deal with them scientifically. And not everyone knows this either: the closest relatives of birds are crocodiles, and both are among the last living representatives of dinosaurs.

It is not surprising that the feathered remnants from the Mesozoic period are much more popular today than the scaled ones, given that birds have a quality that people have always admired about them: the ability to fly under their own power, with a wingspan of up to three meters and speeds of up to 300 km/h – the epitome of unlimited freedom. The common swift, for example, spends ten months a year exclusively in the air, even sleeping in flight.

Unlimited freedom, however, is never free of risks. Anyone who was declared outlawed in the Middle Ages no longer had any protective rights. It certainly didn’t feel free as a bird. And isn’t it the case that no other living creature is built with such magnificent cages as the birds that are kept captive in order to be able to admire their extraordinary beauty at length?

Jonathan Franzen, who is not only a gifted writer but also a committed bird conservationist, puts forward the following thesis in his volume of essays “The End of the End of the World”: “One reason why wild birds are important – should be important to us – is that that they represent our last, best link to a natural world that is otherwise on the wane.” There are also half as many representatives of the Whinchat as there were 40 years ago.

It is that turn of the natural world with which it Alfred Hitchcock succeeded in creating an oppressive apocalyptic mood as early as 1963 in his masterpiece “The Birds”: Although no explicit explanation is given as to why birds attack and even kill en masse in it, the late work of the British film director was also interpreted to mean that it was about revenge for mankind’s transgressions against the creatures of nature. In fact, there have been cases of large numbers of birds attacking houses and destroying power lines. However, as it turned out many years later, the cause was a neurotoxin produced by diatoms that had got into the animals’ organism.

The story in which sparrows were declared enemies of the people of a country and destroyed millions of times seems just as bizarre. Unlike Hitchcock’s script, however, it is true. In 1958, President Mao Tse-tung called China launched a campaign to eradicate tree sparrows because they allegedly ate the seed. The entire population of the huge empire from the age of five did nothing for a few days other than make an immense noise with gongs and tin dishes. The birds, repeatedly startled or prevented from landing, died of exhaustion. Of course, in addition to grain eaters, there was an enormous number of insecticides that fell victim to the murderous action – with the result that the crop failures were all the more severe due to a dramatic increase in grain pests.

We would have almost missed all of this without the Bird of the Year 2023. Thanks, little whinchat!

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