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Bird ringing brought me closer than ever to nature
Have you ever released a bird into the wild from your own hand?
As the summer sun wanes, I had the pleasure of spending a Saturday morning with some volunteer bird ringers in Walthamstow Wetlands.
I’ll be honest, the 5am start time was not my favourite thing about it, but I’m making a documentary at the moment and I had no intention of turning down a golden invitation for good footage. It was also a wonderful peak behind the scenes of what goes on at a London Wildlife Trust reserve, and an inspirational meeting of science and emotion.
But what exactly is bird ringing?
Bird ringing is essentially a method of tracking birds. You will have seen it yourself: birds with tiny metal rings wrapped around their legs. The metal ring is a kind of identification tag that gives the bird a unique number.
Throughout the spring and summer, volunteer bird ringers spend several hours every few weeks capturing and surveying birds. To capture the birds, volunteers set up large mist nets - tall, fine, badminton-like mesh nets. Birds fly into them, become tangled, and volunteers extract them, tag them, and release them again.
It might sound alarming, but the netting and handling of the birds can only be done by trained, licensed bird ringers who know exactly how to do it safely. Volunteers record a variety of data on the birds, including beak length, body length, weight, any signs of illness or diseases, and the ID number (if it is already ringed), or they apply a ring with a new ID number if not. They then file this data with the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) and similar activities around the country build up a national picture of the state of bird populations over time.
This then sheds light on local conservation issues, such as whether a certain habitat is working or what kind of impacts humans are having on local populations, but also much broader pictures like migration patterns, and how climate change and human development is shaping the world of birds.
But perhaps what captured my imagination the most was how excited the volunteers were to be there. One woman I spoke to gushed about what a privilege it was to be close to the animals, to hold them, to gain an insight into their world that most people can only dream of.
In attendance were also some keen members of the public who were either interested in volunteering or just curious about what goes on behind the scenes. When the group instructors gave onlookers the opportunity to hold a bird and release it themselves, there was - every single time, without fail - a moment of pure joy on the face of the person handling the bird. A moment of connection, of getting closer to the natural world than they had ever been before.
It’s these moments of connection and closeness that can be life-changing for a person. Discovering the wonder of nature can be as formative in adults as it is in children, inspiring more exploration, more sharing, and even a reconsidering of how that person has been living their life until that moment.
The bird ringing instructors have seen it before, and I saw it myself in the eyes of those people releasing a bird back into the wild. It was a kind of endorphin boost that shopping, social media, or drugs could only dream of matching.
I wonder how many of our politicians and business leaders have had moments of closeness with nature? How many of the men who plunder, destroy, and consume the natural world for profit have ever held a small bird in their own hand and released it back into the world?
One in six UK species are at risk of extinction as nature continues its freefall. At the same time, the government continues to dismantle environmental policies on construction and pesticides, and increase the extraction of fossil fuels - all completely the opposite of what science is screaming we should be doing.
Science isn’t just in books and charts. You can touch it. You can feel it. How many policymakers would act the same if they did that, just for a moment?