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Archive for the ‘nature’ Category
Here’s a complaint I lodged with the BBC, on Saturday, 30 January 2010, with added links and image:
The Environmental Protection Act 1990 unequivocally makes it is an offence to drop ‘or otherwise deposit’ litter in a public place.
The Marine Conservation Society are campaigning to stop balloon releases, both by persuasion in the short term and, eventually, through prohibitive legislation. They are supported in that campaign by a large number of reputable organisations, including the RSPB, the RSPCA, the National Farmers’ Union, the Tidy Britain Group, Keep Scotland Beautiful, county bird clubs, various Wildlife Trusts and other organisations.
Please make it BBC policy to forbid the release of balloons, as many other organisations have done.
I’ve e-mailed a courtesy copy of the complaint to Prof. Al-Khalili. I’ll let you know what responses I get.
Three times this week, people have referred to me, in good faith, as a “twitcher”. I’m not, and I blame lazy tabloid hacks for creating this misconception, which I will now try to lay to rest.
I am a birdwatcher or, if you will, a birder. I like to be outdoors, with my binoculars and sometimes a telescope, to watch birds. I like to travel to different places, such as hills or the coast, to see different kinds of birds, but I also like to watch common birds, like Starlings, in my garden, or as I move around my home city.
I like to know their life histories, and to read about and study their behaviour, their conservation and their contribution to human folklore.
All together, this brings me a great deal of enjoyment, and helps me to de-stress after spending long hours at a desk in front of a computer, or in stuffy meetings, in my day job. I try to pay some of it back, by sharing my interest with non-birders, and beginners, and by doing voluntary work for the RSPB and the West Midland Bird Club, of which I’m a trustee.
Occasionally, I am pleased to chance upon a rare bird, or to travel a short distance to a local reserve, knowing one is present. The interest in seeing a new species this way is sometimes tempered by the fact that, if it’s a rare vagrant from Siberia or the Americas, it is likely to be exhausted and near death. At the very least, it will never get home or find a mate.
Twitchers, on the other hand, enjoy an extreme, compulsive type of birding, whereby they will hunt out such rarities, competitively, often travelling great distance, at great cost, and enduring considerable discomfort, to do so. They will often prefer to see one bird of a new species, involving a day or more travelling, over the opportunity to spend time looking at a whole range of other, more common birds (which some of them refer to as “trash birds”). There have been cases of twitchers paying hundreds of pounds to charter a boat or plane to get them to The Scillies or The Shetlands, and one once famously left his own wedding reception and missed the start of his honeymoon, to chase after a rarity.
Unlike some birders, who disdain them, I make no judgements about twitchers, and I know that some are very knowledgeable, and are just as likely as other birders to be involved in voluntary and conservation work.
But I’m not one of them. I trust that that’s now clear.
As any web manager worth their salt knows, it’s <span lang=”fr”>trés important</span> that changes in language be marked up with HTML’s “lang” attribute, using an IETF language tag (such as “fr” for French, as shown above). This allows software like text readers for blind people to pronounce them correctly (instead of sounding like an outtake from ‘Allo ‘Allo!) and means that translation software can handle them appropriately.
But what happens when a page like this one includes the scientific (or taxonomic) name of a living thing, such as Circus cyaneus (the Hen Harrier)? It’s not English, and should not be translated, into, say, German, as Zirkus cyaneus.
It’s not really Latin, either, though some people mistakenly refer to scientific names as “Latin names”. Many of them are neologisms — new words, with no real Latin content, but based on Latinised Greek (for example Brachypelma albopilosum), people’s names (Ardeola grayii, in honour of John Edward Gray, a biologist), place names (Nepenthes sumatrana, from Sumatra), culture (Ba humbugi, a quote from Charles Dickens‘ ‘A Christmas Carol‘) or even humour (Phthiria relativitae, a play on “The Theory of Relativity”).
Back in 2003, on the IETF mailing list whcih discusses such langauge codes, I proposed that there should be a specific language code, or sub-code, so that scientific names such as these could be marked up and recognised by software. There wasn’t much interest (possibly because I made the proposal as an amateur, rather than a professional or academic taxonomist), and distractions in my work and domestic life meant that I didn’t, unfortunately, have time to pursue the matter.
However, the need for such a code has now been recognised by Gregor Hagedorn, of the Julius Kuehn Institute, Germany‘s Federal Research Centre for Cultivated Plants, in Berlin, who has rekindled my proposal.
With the support of Gregor and other taxonomists, via the Taxacom mailing list, I’m hopeful we can at last make a case that such a code is needed.
As a child, I was often taken to our local shopping centre in Perry Barr, north Birmingham (since replaced by a tin shed with pretensions of being a mall) to see a Mynah bird (Acridotheres tristis). It resided in what I now realise was a ridiculously small cage, on the counter of a petshop, and would delight all and sundry by asking repeatedly, “Where’s George?”, wolf whistling, or performing another of its many acts of mimicry.
Now my ears are more attuned to such things I realise that the journey was unnecessary. Still living in Birmingham, I can hear the avian equivalent of Rory Bremner any time I wish, simply by opening a window and listening to the Mynah’s relatives, my local Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris). With the onset of autumn, they flock in ever increasing numbers, resplendent in new, strikingly sleek and spotty plumage, and very vocal. As well as having an uncanny ability to sound like any number of other birds, they have been known to imitate car alarms and mobile phones, and even children’s playground screaming.
The quiet suburban road where I live is rarely without Starlings, at any time of day, but the city-centre skies are no longer darkened by the flocks which came in to roost there in my childhood. A backfiring car would see thousands take off at once, and have pedestrians reaching for tissues to remove their supposedly “lucky” deposits from clothing or — worse — hair.
The birds in my garden are far better behaved, except when treated to their favourite delicacy: leftover, raw, shortcrust pastry. They descend from my and my neighbours’ rooftops the second I step back from the bird table, and the food disappears in moments, in a cloud of flying feathers and squawking and pecking bills, the birds mingling too rapidly to count accurately.
One particularly convincing, if annoying, individual has perfected the art of reproducing a Buzzard‘s (Buteo buteo) mewing call, no doubt heard in more open country. Ever gullible, I rush into the garden each time it performs this trick, in the hope of adding the real thing to my “garden list”. So far, without success.
[The above was written some time ago, with the intention of emulating the Guardian’s Country Diary column. As such, it has exactly 200 words, not counting the subsequent addition of scientific names. These are marked up with the draft Species Microformat, which I developed, and which is already being used on Wikipedia.]