Thursday, 16 June 2016

What can a bird nest from 1934 tell us?

Twite nest from 1934
This bird nest is remarkable - it can tell us something fascinating about the history of the landscape from which it was taken.

It was built by a bird called a twite - a small finch which breeds on moorlands. Twite are now in serious decline - numbers have dropped by 90% since the 1990s. This is partly because of the loss of hay meadows which provide food - and the decrease in older heather stands for nesting.

The twite - Linaria flavirostris
The twite is almost unique - it is one of only two British bird species which feeds its young entirely on seeds - hence why hay meadows are so important for its breeding success.

What's so interesting about the nest in the photo? 

You may have noticed that it looks black in colour. This is not because it has deteriorated over the 80 years since it was collected - it was like this when it was taken from Saddleworth Moor in 1934.

The dark appearance is caused by a layer of greasy soot deposited from the atmosphere onto the grasses - from which the twite built its nest. This is an incredible window into the past - showing the widespread effects of pollution from the coal-burning heavy industries on the surrounding landscape - something which it is hard to imagine today.

It has been illegal to take the eggs of wild birds since 1954 - but egg collectors of the day reported that they would return from a day on the moor with their trousers blackened to the knee by this layer of soot.

Many thanks to Gallery Oldham for providing the photo and details of the nest - just one exhibit from their extensive natural history collection.

Visit the Gallery Oldham website or facebook page.

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