Bloomsbury Wildlife

Jess French discovers some of the world’s most venomous creatures…

Author Jess French is no stranger to the world’s most venomous creatures. Her recent book Minibeasts with Jess French is packed full of mindblowing minibeast facts. This month she visited the Venom: Killer and Cure exhibition at the Natural History Museum to uncover more…

Part of the joy of a lifelong fascination with invertebrates is that you can never know it all.  When writing my latest book, Minibeasts with Jess French, this superabundance of information presented me with somewhat of a dilemma.  There were simply too many incredible facts to condense into one tome.  The flipside, of course, is that there is always something new and exciting to learn.  And that’s just what I did when visiting the Natural History Museum’s incredible exhibition, ‘Venom’.

Some of the content was familiar to me, like the excellent diagram of Justin O Schmidt’s pain scale.  The highlights of this barometer of suffering are presented on pg. 49 of my book, as well as further facts on some of the minibeasts he chose to be stung by. In ‘Venom’ a whole wall display was devoted to his menu of torture, detailing in full his delicious descriptions.  A particular favourite must be the Bullet Ant, which he describes as ‘Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like walking over flaming charcoal with a three-inch nail embedded in your heel.’

‘Bullet Ant’ by gailhampshire. CC-BY 2.0 via Flickr

Other facts were new to me, like the existence of a venomous beetle!  The Scorpion Beetle, from Peru, is the world’s only known venomous beetle.  Its venom is comparable to the Deathstalker scorpion, which was used as a weapon against the Romans by Iraqis from the fortress of Hatra.  The Scorpion beetle delivers its sting through the needle-like tips of its long and magnificent antennae.  It is an innocuous-looking little creature.  One which I’m sure I wouldn’t have hesitated to scoop up with my bare hands on my travels around South America, had I come across it!

Deathstalker scorpion by Matt Reinbold CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

One invertebrate that I certainly would not consider handling is the Scolopendra centipede.  People often ask me if I’m afraid of any minibeasts.  My usual answer is that ‘no, I’m not afraid, just respectful.’  I occasionally caveat this with the exception of the Scolopendra centipede.  And the truth is, they terrify me.  More than once they have visited me in nightmares and several times I’ve run from them in real life too!  When travelling with my boyfriend in Asia I remember the fear flooding his face when he realized we had unearthed an invertebrate that I was afraid of.  ‘Oh no’, he had thought, ‘this really must be bad!’  These voracious predators chase down their prey at alarming speed and even hang from the roof of bat caves, taking bats in mid-flight! Thankfully, the only live invertebrates within the ‘Venom’ exhibition were spiders; the centipedes were dead, pinned and preserved.

It was also interesting to read about the evolution of novel cocktails of venom being driven by the arms race between envenomator and envenomated.  The ingenuity of evolution by natural selection and its ability to create such convoluted and intricate designs within nature never ceases to amaze me. In Minibeasts I describe one such race between a cloverworm and the plant it feeds on, which results in wasps learning to abseil and kamikaze caterpillars!

Jess at the Venom: Killer and Cure exhibition at the Natural History Museum

The scope of the exhibition is far wider than just invertebrates.  Snakes, fish and lizards are all represented, as well as a fascinating section on the use of venom in human medicine and warfare.  It’s well worth a visit.  And if it whets your appetite for a foray into the wider world of bizarre and shocking minibeast facts – after all, there are few animals as downright bizarre as invertebrates – you may also be interested in taking a look at my new book Minibeasts with Jess French!

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World Wildlife Day 2018 turns the spotlight on big cats

By Sara Evans

Today is World Wildlife Day! Set up by the United Nations and organised by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), World Wildlife Day has been an annual event since 2014.

Described as the ‘most important global annual event dedicated to wildlife’, the aim of World Wildlife Day is to celebrate and raise awareness of the earth’s wonderful animals and plants and promote their protection.

Each year it has a special theme. This year the focus is on big cats. Why big cats? In a nutshell, because they’re in trouble. Big trouble. Lions, tigers, leopards and jaguars, as well as other wild cats, are in crisis. It can feel difficult to take this in. Big cats, especially lions and tigers, are vivid in our minds. It’s easy to picture a lion roaring on the savannah or see a tiger dashing through a sunlit forest, but the reality is that many of these species are on the brink of extinction.

Their populations are crashing, declining at frighteningly fast speeds. For example, in Asia, tiger populations have plummeted by 95 percent in the last century. And in Africa lion numbers have fallen by 40 per cent in just under two decades. Many experts believe fewer than 20,000 lions now remain in the entire continent.

During my time as a travel writer, I was lucky to have had many encounters with lions. All different. All mesmerising. So, when I learned about the plight of lions, I wanted to understand how one of Africa’s most enduring icons could be in such peril?

What happened, I wondered, to the lions that roamed Africa in their millions a couple of centuries back? What happened to the ancient lions that left Africa for Eurasia, eventually reaching North America? And what happened to the big cats that moved into Asia, populating vast territories from northern Greece to Pakistan and further south to India?

When The Last Lion Roars, is all about these missing lions. It tells of their rise during the Ice Age and their fall in more recent times. It reflects on our journey with them and the effect we have had on them, from our very first encounters as early humans to the dramatic interactions of lions with pharaohs, emperors, maharajas and European royalty, to everyday folk just protecting their livestock and kin, and the trophy hunters of modern times.

But my book also tells the story of the people protecting our last lions. These include men, women and children who share their landscapes with lions and who have found ways to live together, conflict-free. They also include scientists, researchers and conservationists who seek to find ways to help people and lions live peaceably together.

Which is why I’m delighted World Wildlife Day is putting the plight of lions and other big cats in the spotlight. Giving more people the opportunity to get involved in protecting some of our most charismatic predators.

 

When The Last Lion Roars is published in June. Pre-order your copy here.

 

Sara Evans is an award-winning writer and photojournalist, specialising in travel and wildlife. Her work has beenfeatured in the TelegraphLonelyPlanet Travel MagazineBBC Wildlife MagazineAfricaGeographicCountryside Wildlife Magazine and many others. She won the 2005 Independent on Sunday and Bradt Travel Writing competition andhas been shortlisted in a number of BBC writing competitions.

How to make Seaweed & Garlic Biscuits inspired by Food You Can Forage

We’ve done it, guys. February half term has arrived, and even if you don’t have feral children to dance around this week, it means we’ve all made it through the miserable post-Christmas slump – and spring is finally on its way! The landscape is already bursting with signs of spring; our hazel trees are full of catkins and we’ve seen the first daffodils, snowdrops and primroses emerging from the soil. So while we wait for the last clutch of winter to release its grip, now is the perfect time to explore our coastlines, fill our lungs with fresh, salty air after hibernation, and forage something delicious from the waves.

Tiffany Francis in Eastborne

Britain’s coastline is rich in seaweeds and halophytes (plants that thrive in saltwater), and seaweeds are great for beginner foragers, as they are easy to identify and there are no poisonous varieties on British shores – although some taste better than others. There is plenty to nibble on the edge of the ocean, including one of our most common seaweeds bladderwrack (Fucus vesiculosus),  the colour of dark olives and rather leathery, with pockets of air (bladders) swollen at the end of each branch. I use it to make seaweed crisps by drying the branches off with kitchen towel and laying them out flat on a baking tray. Sprinkle with rosemary, chilli flakes and chopped garlic, and pop in the oven for a few minutes to bake.

Fresh bladderwrack

My favourite edible weed is kelp (Laminaria digitata), also known as oarweed. The Latin name digitata means finger, because it looks like a big wobbly hand waving at you underwater. The texture is thick and leathery with one wide blade tailoring off into strappy segments, and it is usually found on low-tide rocky shores throughout Britain, sometimes forming ‘kelp forests’ on large tidal stones. In Japan, kelp is used as a thickening agent in soups and stocks, but when dried it also makes a delicious addition to noodle soup with king prawns and ginger.

Out of the water, sea purslane (Halimione portulacoides) grows on the walls of coastal footpaths around saltmarshes, coastal dunes, pools and creek edges throughout the south and east of England. Blossoming with greenish yellow star-shaped flowers and thick, fleshy leaves, the entire thing is brimming with vitamins and minerals. On some Caribbean islands it is even used to treat wounds caused by venomous fish. Take the leaves home to stir fry with cashew nuts, or try Filipino cuisine and mix them with papaya and garlic to make sweet pickles called atchara.

If the coast is choppy this February, imagine the Norse goddess Rán, who was believed to be responsible for all storms and lost souls at sea. She spends her immortal days beachcombing lost treasures at the bottom of the ocean, gathering them in the giant fishing net she wears around her waist. Always check the tides before venturing onto the beach, and stay away from dangerous water conditions. You can also help protect our coastlines by doing a 2 minute beach clean to remove any litter and plastics.

Seaweed & Garlic Biscuits
(To eat with creamy cheese and chutney!)

Ingredients

230g wholemeal flour
115g semolina
¾ tsp sea salt
2 tbsp olive oil
Dried seaweed
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 stems rosemary, stripped & chopped
55g flaxseed
210ml warm water

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C. In a frying pan, fry up the seaweed, chopped garlic and rosemary in a little olive oil.
  2. In a separate bowl, mix the flour, semolina, salt and flaxseed together with the fried seaweed mix.
  3. In a measuring jug, mix 210ml warm water with a splash of olive oil, and add this to the flour mix to make a firm dough. Knead well.
  4. Roll the dough out onto a floured surface to a thickness of 3mm. Use a cookie cutter or glass to cut several circles out.
  5. Lightly oil a baking tray and add the cut circles onto the tray.
  6. Bake for 20 minutes or until golden.

Tiffany Francis is the author of Food You Can Forage, publishing 8th March 2018. Pre-order your copy here. Follow Tiffany on Twitter at @tiffins11.

 

The intelligence of ravens

By Joe Shute

Three immediate truths tend to register with a person when they find themselves close to a raven.

Firstly, the sheer size of the giant corvid, which can possess a wing span of more than a metre.

Then there is the colour. Whilst from a distance the raven’s plumage appears a funereal black, up close it morphs into a shimmering pool of inky blue and brown.

Finally, and most thrillingly, is the sensation that the bird is looking at you. Not just assessing whether you are a threat or potential source of food, but staring somehow deeper. You realise that behind the raven’s dark beady eye is a fiercely intelligent creature – and you are being weighed and measured.

In years gone by this intelligence proved to be the raven’s undoing, leading it to be branded the ‘devil’s bird’ and ruthlessly purged. But in recent years, as the welcome revival of the raven has continued across the country, studies are beginning to unpick the secrets of its motivations and thoughts. We now know, for example, that ravens form complex social structures and establish their own political systems by remembering long-term relationships.

Ravens can also manufacture and use tools, solve problems, learn to mimic voices, spot themselves in a mirror, and recognise human faces for many years after they have seen them.

More incredibly still, ravens can plan for the future. In the summer of 2017, a report was published by a group of Swedish researchers who had been studying captive ravens at Lund University. By presenting them with various challenges and rewards and monitoring the response of the individual birds as to how they hoarded and bartered with food, the research team confirmed that the ravens possessed the power of foresight, an ability previously only documented by scientists in great apes and humans.

For much of the 20th century, the size of the brain was regarded as being of primary importance in determining an animal’s intelligence. The brain of a raven, by the way, is roughly the equivalent of a large Brazil nut (15.4g compared to an average body weight of about 1kg). However, recent studies have challenged this traditional theory and shown that, in fact, it is the density of neurons packed into a brain that is the true marker of intelligence. Judged by this criterion, the raven has been shown to possess 1.204 billion neurons in its forebrain (the avian equivalent of the cerebral cortex which is the nucleus of human intelligence) a far higher concentration compared with primates, or other mammals and birds.

Perhaps this goes some way to explain the curious occurrence I have considered in my book: when captive ravens live with people, they insert themselves into human social structures, ruthlessly teasing anybody they deem below them in the pecking order and ingratiating themselves with those they regard as their superior.

It is not proven by science, and would make critics of anthropomorphism wince, but those who spend time with ravens insist that they possess every emotion a human does: empathy, jealousy, remorse, guilt, anger, fear, joy, anxiety and frustration.

Seeing how closely ravens interact with people reminds me of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, one of my favourite childhood reading experiences.

Pullman described how every person possessed a dæmon, an animal manifestation of their soul. Indeed in a recent interview Pullman said that if he were to have a dæmon himself it would be a raven, due to their ‘enterprising way of dealing with the world, intelligence, acrobatic flight and daring behaviour’.

As with Pullman’s dæmons, invisible bonds have connected humans to the raven for millennia. And it is only through a deeper understanding of the raven’s intelligence that we can gain a greater insight into the connection that still resonates today.

Joe Shute is the author of A Shadow Above: The Fall and Rise of the Raven, out now with Bloomsbury Wildlife. 

Take part in the Big Garden Birdwatch!

This weekend is the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch. There’s still time to register online for this year’s event, and help provide the RSPB with important information on how the UK bird population is doing. It is simple and enjoyable – and a great excuse to watch your garden birds from the comfort of your living room! 

To help you take part and identify the birds in your garden, for a limited time only, we’re offering 30% off our top birding books including the new release The Everyday Guide to British Birds. In the blog below author Charlie Elder gives a few tips for spotting birds in your garden. 

By Charlie Elder

Identifying birds can seem like a confusing business for a beginner. For a start, they never seem to stay still long enough to get a decent look, flying off just when you’ve worked out which way to twiddle the focus wheel on your binoculars. Then, when you do get round to thumbing through a guidebook, it’s hard to remember exactly what you saw, and there seems to be a bewildering array of possibilities.

It was fairly small and brownish, of that you’re sure. Only this doesn’t narrow things down much, given the pages of alternatives. Oh, and didn’t it have some red on the front? Bingo! A Sinai Rosefinch. Fancy seeing one of those in my back garden – a first for Britain. (Unless, of course, it was a Bullfinch.)

Frustratingly, birds in the wild don’t pose neatly side on the way they do in books, and their colours may look muted in poor light. It can be hard to get an accurate sense of size, while so-called ‘unmistakable’ characteristics can seem anything but. And where exactly should you look to distinguish a bird’s so-called ‘distinguishing features’? For a novice, it can feel as though identification depends on actually knowing what the bird is first!

However, even those who consider themselves complete ornithological bird brains may be pleasantly surprised by what they already know. When it comes to identification, most of us will recognise a picture of a Robin, a Magpie, Kingfisher or Puffin. Perhaps we’d also know when we saw a Wren, Blue Tit, Swallow, pheasant, Barn Owl or Heron. And we could definitely guess that something was a kind of swan, duck, gull or woodpecker even if we couldn’t recognise the exact species.

And that’s where the fun begins. What kind of swan is it? Putting names to birds could be regarded as a frivolous brain-teaser, but there is more to it than that. The satisfying challenge of working out what something is from clues and the process of observing and noticing help us gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the natural diversity around us. And knowing what a bird is called is only a start. Rather than being an answer in itself, a bird’s name could be considered a question: a whooper swan? What’s that all about?

Unlike with hobbies such as hot air ballooning or abseiling, it doesn’t matter if you make mistakes when you’re watching birds – though it’s much more rewarding to know you’re getting things right. And that’s what inspired The Everyday Guide to British Birds. By excluding rare and elusive species, localised specialities and birds that are incredibly tricky to identify, my new book tries to help birdwatching beginners by focusing attention on the common and widespread species we are most likely to encounter.

An excellent place to start is in the comfort of your own home, by joining in with the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch. Every January, the RSPB urges everyone to make a note of the bird species that visit their back gardens and bird tables over the course of one hour – this year it’s from January 27–29. Big Garden Birdwatch not only encourages people to put their bird identification skills into practice, it also puts everyone’s findings to good use. More than half a million people take part every year, and the findings have helped scientists to paint a picture of the changing populations and distribution of familiar species since the ‘citizen science’ survey was first launched in 1979.

One thing Big Garden Birdwatch has shown is that our abundant species can never be taken for granted. The humble House Sparrow may consistently top the Big Garden Birdwatch chart as the species we are most likely to spot from our kitchen window, but flocks are now far fewer in number than before – numbers are down by more than half since the annual survey of backyard birds began. Other declining species include the Starling, Greenfinch and Song Thrush. Happily, though, Woodpigeons, Collared Doves and Goldfinches are flying high, visiting our gardens in increasing numbers.

Beyond the back garden, long-term surveys have shown that once-numerous species have undergone alarming declines, particularly farmland birds, such as Yellowhammers, Linnets, Tree Sparrows and Grey Partridges. This may sound like a contradiction in terms, but in many cases, it’s the common birds we need to worry about.

Whether you birdwatch as you go, or go out of your way to see more, learning about our birds and appreciating the everyday species around us offers a lifetime of pleasure and discovery.

The Everyday Guide to British Birds, an illustrated Bloomsbury/RSPB title by Charlie Elder, describes our common and widespread species and the fascinating qualities that make them unique. All photos taken by Charlie Elder and used with permission. 

The Bloomsbury Wildlife team share their favourite nature books

For hundreds of years, writers have been capturing the wonder of the natural world in poetry and prose, and exploring our changing relationship with nature. Throughout November, the Arts & Humanities Research Council have teamed up with research project Land Lines to track down the UK’s favourite book about nature. As committed nature book-lovers we couldn’t shy away from this challenge! We’ve asked the Bloomsbury Wildlife team to tell us their ultimate favourites.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

It’s great to see people talking and thinking about their favourite nature book. Everyone should have one. I know I do – it’s H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. Before it came out I’d been a friend of Helen’s on Twitter for a while, and gently following the procession to publication of her book. I got a copy more or less the day it came out – not because I was swept along by the hype (there wasn’t really any), but because she was fun to chat to and I was interested to read what she’d written. I didn’t really know anything much about the book, or about her, either.

And of course it blew me away, like everybody else who has read it. What I hadn’t realised was that prior to publication, I’d been swapping 140-character nonsense with someone who, in time, will be considered a true great of English literature. You don’t need me to tell you how good H is for Hawk is. It’s not just a nature book – it’s the best non-fiction work of the century so far. H is for Hawk will be read and enjoyed for generations to come. And yes, I am annoyed I didn’t publish it.

Jim Martin, Publisher

Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell

Written in 1959 and published in 1960, Ring of Bright Water is a firm classic of nature writing and my all-time favourite of the genre. Gavin Maxwell writes beautifully about the life he lived in Sandaig with his pet otters, and his eccentric devotion to them. There is definitely a reason that this is one of the most popular nature books ever written. In parts it reads like a fairy tale – it is beautiful, evocative and romantic. If you haven’t read it, I urge you to!

Alice Ward, Senior Editor

The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd

The Guardian calls The Living Mountain ‘the finest book ever written on nature and landscape in Britain’ – and I completely agree. Nan Shepherd beautifully describes her journeys into the Cairngorm mountains of Scotland – musing on the ways in which we form emotional connections with our landscapes. It is a book that delights with each rereading.

Julie Bailey, Senior Commissioning Editor

Animalium by Jenny Broom and Katie Scott

Animalium is such a beautiful book – and a great idea for it to be framed as a ‘virtual museum’. Each chapter features a different branch of the tree of life, from the sponge to the elephant. I was completely absorbed!

Jenny Campbell, Editor

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

My favourite nature book is Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. I find Bill’s writing absolutely hilarious – and in between the laugh-out-loud descriptions of his hapless attempts to walk the Appalachian trail, he offers beautiful descriptions of the American countryside, as well as interesting facts.

Molly Arnold, Editorial Assistant

On The Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin

I’m not sure if this strictly counts but On The Black Hill steals my top spot because of its touching portrayal of a human relationship with the land. It is set on a farm in rural Wales, and revolves around two brothers who never leave home. It’s a wonderful story; so well told. I read it on the recommendation of my Year 9 English teacher and it has stayed with me ever since. Bruce Chatwin even inspired my visit to Patagonia.

Hannah Paget, Senior Marketing Executive

What’s your favourite book about nature? Join in by tweeting #favnaturebook before midnight on 30th November 2017. The results will be announced in February 2018.

Feeling inspired? Browse through our collection of brilliant nature writing.

Lars Jonsson’s Winter Birds

World-renowned ornithologist Lars Jonsson, born in Sweden in 1952, is widely regarded as one of the greatest bird artists of all time. He lives in southern Gotland, where he runs his own museum and immerses himself in the rich birdlife of the open countryside.

In this stunning book, Jonsson celebrates and explores the beauty of the birds that surround him during the Swedish winter months. He illustrates each bird in his classic style, and his text provides information on their behaviour and insight into how to identify them as he shares personal observations as both an artist and ornithologist.

Inspired by the desolate, wintry landscapes, the dazzling light and the stark contract of colours he observes against the snow, Jonsson has created an unparalleled collection of art.

Explore the selection of beautiful images taken from Winter Birds, alongside commentary from Lars Jonsson.

The Blackbird

The Blackbird prefers to nest in gardens and many of us see it close by, in city or countryside, perched quietly on a bush in winter. For many, it is doubtless its song on late-winter/early-spring evenings that leads them to have a strong feeling for the Blackbird. The Blackbird male is well suited as an object of study aimed at understanding how passerines moult: this can be done well and in comfort from the kitchen window on a winter’s day if you put out a few apples.

The Green Woodpecker

The Green Woodpecker belongs to a group of woodpeckers which are sometimes called ‘ground woodpeckers’ and therein lies the explanation of why they are predominantly green on the upperparts. They feed largely on ants which they find on the ground, down beneath turves or in ant-hills. Against the grass surface the colour functions as a camouflage.

The Rook

The Rook is the size of a Hooded Crow but seems more slender in build, with a longer, more wedge-shaped bill and somewhat more ‘loosely joined’ wings and tail. If you watch a Rook in light wind, it is often as if the feathers are lifted by the wind and the wing looks a little ‘looser’. This creates interesting shadow effects for an artist, and Rooks are enjoyable subjects. Their featherless face adds a human characteristic and when seen from the front it resembles an old woman with a black head-scarf.

 

 

 

Images taken from Winter Bids by Lars Jonsson, available now.

Here are five things you may not know about hares

To the people of rural Britain, hares are deeply beloved, perhaps above all other animals. But how much do we know about these elusive creatures? Marianne Taylor, author of The Way of the Hare, illuminates some of their lesser known traits.

Super speeds

We all know that hares are famed for being speed demons. Running flat out, a brown hare can hit just over 70km/h, which makes it the fastest-running wild mammal in Britain. And to have a hope of ever catching one, humans had to selectively breed a super fast, long-legged dog – the greyhound. However, the hare’s top speed is only part of their success story: studies show hares can accelerate at 4.4m/s2! Even when he’s bursting out of the starting blocks, the fastest human on Earth, Usain Bolt, accelerates at a comparatively measly 2.92 m/s2. But that’s not all hares can do: they can also slow down even more rapidly than they can speed up. And it’s their ability to decelerate at an incredible 5.2m/s2 and then speed up again almost as quickly that allows them to make their famous lightning-fast changes in direction. This zigzag or ‘jinking’ escape trick can help hares escape the jaws of even the fastest greyhound.

Those crazily long legs look cumbersome when the hare is loping along, but they allow for extraordinary speed when it’s needed.

Super poo

If you’ve ever seen rabbit poo, you already have a fair idea of what hare poo looks like as it’s just a slightly larger version of those compact brown pellets you find lying around in fields where rabbits are plentiful. Both hare and rabbit poo is made of grass fibres wrung dry of all moisture, colour, and, presumably, useable nutrients. What an efficient gastrointestinal tract these animals must possess to deal so thoroughly with indigestible grass. Well, yes and no. To achieve this efficiency lagomorphs have to eat the grass twice because one trip through the gut isn’t enough. Yes, hares and rabbits eat their poo! During the night they produce special droppings called cecotropes, which are soft, moist and stuck together in lumps, and they eat them straight away, to give their guts a second go at absorbing nutrients. Only after a second journey through the intestines do those familiar dry pellets of poo come out.

That blade of grass has a long, complicated and rather startling journey ahead of it.

Superpower

Hares are linked in lore and legend with fertility and friskiness. One reason for this is that as they approach their ‘due date’, pregnant females seek out liaisons with any willing males (which is all of them). To be keen to mate at a moment when most female mammals are quite possibly wishing they’d never mated in the first place might seem unusual. But female hares have a superpower – they can get pregnant when they’re already pregnant. Ultrasounds of captive hares have confirmed that females that are about to give birth can also have a new set of fertilised ova waiting in the wings, as it were, for the first litter to be born. After the birth, the new set settles into the recently vacated uterus. Mind-bogglingly, this means that the sperm that fertilises litter two somehow finds its way through a uterus already full of well-developed young to reach the new eggs. This strategy shortens the breeding cycle by a few days each time, which may mean that the hare can squeeze in an extra litter per year before the summer’s end.

Competition with hoofed grazing mammals like the Fallow Deer is a real danger to hares around the world.

The danger of competition

For all their talents, hares and rabbits (the lagomorphs) have suffered for millennia at the hands – or rather hooves – of their larger, stronger, more efficient and at times even faster rivals. Deer, sheep, antelopes, goats and their allies represent evolution’s alternative system for making a mammal that can live on grass and it seems to be a success. These ruminant animals don’t need to eat their poo – their four-chambered stomach does the job of rinsing nutrients out of their grassy diet. That seems to be a better way since ruminants worldwide have long been doing much better than lagomorphs, which are slowly disappearing. For a microcosm of the global picture, let’s look at an example from Minorca five million years ago where an ancient lagomorph lived, while on neighbouring Mallorca there lived an early ruminant. Both dwelt quite happily on their respective islands until a sea level shift revealed a land bridge, linking the two islands. The ruminant spread to Minorca and got to work eating its way through the grasslands, and very soon it had outcompeted the lagomorph into extinction on both islands.

The moon and the hare

There are hares around much of the world – Europe, Asia, North America and Africa all have hares aplenty, of various species. Understandably, hare mythology spans the globe too and, in lots of cultures, the hare has a special connection with the moon, which is almost certainly because hares are best seen (and hunted) on moonlit nights. Another connection – real or imaginary – is the link between our moods and the moon’s phases, with madness and moonlight thought to go together as surely as madness and hares do. (Though hares’ have crazy chases and boxing bouts for very sensible reasons – they help female hares choose the best possible mates.) A third lunar connection is that the moon has its own hare: the shadowy shapes on its full face can be interpreted, with only a little imagination, as the image of a hare sitting almost upside-down sporting a pair of oversized ears.

Can you see the hare in the moon? Look for its ears…

Marianne Taylor is a birdwatcher, dragonfly-finder and mammal-seeker from Kent, England. She is the author of a number of books for Bloomsbury, including some of our best-selling RSPB titles, such as British Birds of Prey, Where to Discover Nature and Naturewatch. She is the recent author of The Way of the Hare.

Secrets and Robins

As spring turns slowly into summer and beautiful birdsong can be heard rising in the early hours, you’d be forgiven for imagining a bird’s life is somewhat idyllic. A bird’s life is often unusual and surprising, but it is also brief and much darker than you might think. In this extract from his new book Songs of Love and War, author Dominic Couzens takes a closer look at the Robin.

What better bird could there be to demonstrate the dark, realistic side of bird behaviour? One moment the robin is the fluffy, orange-breasted ball of feathers that delights us by its tameness; the next moment it launches into an unrestrained attack on a neighbour. With two default settings – ‘cute’ and ‘seething’ – the Robin is the quintessential lovable rogue as far as humanity is concerned. But what is the truth about Britain’s National Bird?

I went in search of the core of Robins, to examine what life might truly be like in their world. I have watched them myself over the years; I checked out the literature, and I sought out experts. I considered what people thought about them, and I wondered what aspects of their biology might be surprising. It turns out that their lives are an open book of research. The most important aspect of studying Robins was discovering just how complicated, as well as dark, the lives of birds can be.

So, what of the robin’s reputation for being feisty and belligerent – is this true, and is the Robin more violent than other birds? The witness for the prosecution will assert that Robins are routinely spotted being aggressive and that they sometimes kill other members of their own species. In one study conducted in a dense robin population in Cambridge, a truly extraordinary figure of 10 per cent of all adult males (the sample size was 98 birds) died as a result of injuries inflicted during conflicts over territory; the figure for females was only 3 per cent. So the answer to the colloquial question ‘who killed cock robin? ’ was cock robin.

This figure should be mitigated by the fact that, once neighbours settle down for more than a few days, serious fighting is very rare. The same thing applies to singing birds of many species. Nevertheless, for some days during territorial formation, robin society can be shockingly violent.

But are robins more aggressive than other birds? There isn’t much data available for most songbirds, but the overall picture suggests that Robins are unusual. Blackbirds are also extremely territorial, both in winter and during the establishment of territories in early spring. Fights are fairly common, but the impression is that they are less common than physical confrontations in Robins. Blackbirds do sometimes kill each other, but it is rare. On the balance of probability, it seems that Robins are more likely to kill their own species than other songbirds are.

Although the most violent fights between Robins are known to happen in the early spring, I have witnessed the worst confrontations in the autumn. Perhaps that is because Robins are so conspicuous then and you are more likely to catch them in the act. In September just about every other bird of the fields and hedgerows is silent, and the only real songsters are Robins – with the odd exclamatory burst from a wren. The leaves of the woodland trees turn red, the sorrels and other herbs become crimson, and the bushes are full of scarlet berries. You might say that it is the right time to see red.

 

From dawn until dusk, birds do things that are surprising and mystifying. Songs of Love and War: The Dark Heart of Bird Behaviour by Dominic Couzens delves into bird behaviour and uncovers its purpose and meaning.

The launch of the Arabic Birds of the Middle East

Richard Porter tells of how bee-eaters brings hope for wildlife

The jacket image for the Arabic version for Birds of the Middle East

Early March and we are on the edge of the Arabian Gulf, the strong sunlight sparkling on the khors, mangroves, deserts and Dubai’s dramatic skyline. I am at the annual Emirates Festival of Literature to talk about bird conservation in the Middle East, take a wildlife walk for children and, especially, to launch the Arabic Birds of the Middle East. With its cover of colourful Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters – a widespread and familiar migrant in the Middle East – we hope it will encourage a new generation of Arabs to love birds.

Dubai’s skyline over the internationally important Ras al Khor where we saw over 10 globally threatened Greater Spotted Eagles.

This long awaited Arabic guide was born from Bloomsbury’s Birds of the Middle East and was welcomed at the Festival by an enthusiastic audience of many nationalities. Co-written with the late Simon Aspinall it was translated by Abdulrahman Al-Sirhan Alenezi of Kuwait, one of Arabia’s leading ornithologists. Such is his commitment to conservation, that he made the translation as a personal voluntary contribution to our understanding of birds. A translation of this magnitude with all the challenges of technical terms and Arab bird names is not for the feint-hearted and we owe a great debt of gratitude to Abdulrahman.

Bloomsbury generously made the rights freely available to the book’s publishers, BirdLife International and the Ornithological Society of the Middle East under the banner of Bloomsbury’s ‘Helm Field Guides’.

Sponsorship came from several organisations: OSME and RSPB, but also the journal British Birds, the Hima Fund and AviFauna. All were delighted to be part of a field guide that will promote an interest in birds and wildlife in a part of the world where good news is often rare.

After the launch a book signing attracted many young Arab wildlife enthusiasts.

As I have said before on a Bloomsbury blog, field guides to birds are only one cog in the conservation journey, enabling us to identify, quantify – and appreciate – the wonders of our natural world. For my generation these guides are books, but for the children of today it will increasingly be eBooks and Apps.

And an App is what OSME and BirdLife plan to produce next for the many Smartphone-carrying young Arabs who aspire to be the next generation of Middle East conservationists.

Birds of the Middle East is a completely revised second edition of the bestselling field guide to the birds of the Middle East, covering Turkey, Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, the Arabian peninsula and Socotra.

 

 

 

 

 

Images provided by Richard Porter and Mark Smiles, do not reuse without permission.