In all likelihood you’ve heard the phrase ‘dead as a dodo’. The phrase probably has Victorian origins and built upon the existing older saying ‘dead as a doornail’ according to an article by Turvey and Cheke in Historical Biology. The earliest record of the phrase listed now in the Oxford English Dictionary is 1904 and the phrase grew in popularity beginning in the 1940s, if you believe the Google n-gram chart.
At the Horniman Museum near London, a case with two birds stands near a staircase in the back on the natural history exhibit. Unlike most of the other displays that show visitors either related species (like a display of apes) or convergent evolution (like things with wing-like structures), this one puts the history of the species at fore. This relatively new display tells an extinction and reintroduction story:
The great bustard (Otis tarda) once lived in Salisbury Plain and in the breck district of East Anglia, but became extinct as a breeding bird in the UK in 1832, mainly due to habitat fragmentation. Attempts have been made to reintroduce the species both in Britain and on the European continent.
As a historian of reintroduction, the exactness of the extinction caught my eye: in 1832 the great bustard became “extinct as a breeding bird”. Inspired by a post I read yesterday on John Smith and a mermaid sighting, which turned out to be a fabricated history, I decided to go looking for this date.
If you do an internet search for the great bustard and 1832, you will see that a plethora of newspaper articles reference the date, often saying something like the bird “became extinct in the UK that year” or “the last one was killed in 1832”. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds website likewise claims “the last bird was shot in 1832”. Of course, that’s not the same thing as the claim made on the Horniman sign, which says the bird no longer bred after that year. That statement is sometimes picked up in newspaper articles, like one discussing the first chick hatched by reintroduced birds. In modern birding books like John Parslow’s Breeding Birds of Britain and Ireland (1973), the last breeding date of 1832 is also given. Interestingly, the Great Bustard Group, which is leading the reintroduction efforts, simply states “Great Bustards were formerly very much part of British wildlife until the 1840s when they became extinct in Britain due to collectors and changes in agriculture.” But they are the exception to the rule.
Where did this 1832 extinction date come from?
A short communication in The Magazine of Natural History and Journal of Zoology, Botany, Mineralogy, Geology and Meteorology for 1833 reported:
A nest of the great bustard (Otis tarda L.) was discovered this season on an extensive warren, in the neighbourhood of Thetford: the female, I have much pleasure in stating, took her young off in safety; and on the same heath a male bird and two females have been seen together very recently. — J.D. Hoy. Stoke Nayland, Suffolk, Nov. 20, 1832.
Here was a 1832 sighting of a nest and chicks! This story of 1832 was repeated in William Yarrell’s A History of British Birds (vol. 2, 2nd edition, 1843), although he said he got it from a Rev. Richard Lubbock. A later version of the story in A History of the Birds of Europe included a post-script that another man who was with J. D. Hoy and saw the young bird ascertained “that the nest was situated in a field of rye, into which the old and young retired when disturbed”.
Yet, 1832 was by no means the last sighting of great bustards in the UK. A very thorough article “The Great Bustard” in Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country in September 1854 detailed all of the documents mentioning bustards by year through 1843 in England. The entry for 1834 stated:
But, notwithstanding this evidence and the story of the last of the Salisbury plain Bustards–a widowed female–coming into a farmer’s barton as if giving herself up in despair, the breed, though greatly reduced, was not entirely extinct in England in 1825, or even in 1833….In the summer of 1834, a nest of three eggs was hatched in an open corn-field about a mile from High House; and in December in that year, three Great Bustards were seen about a mile from it. (p.335)
This article noted that Yarrell’s A History of British Birds, 2nd edition, had reported a female great bustard shot in 1843 and concluded “this is the last instance known to us of the existence of this noble species in Great Britain” (p.336).
Later in 1853, Yarrell, who had written the definitive work on British birds, read a communication titled “On the Habits and Structure of the Great Bustard (Otis tarda of Linnæus)” for the Linnean Society of London. In it, he reproduced a letter from J. H. Gurney of Norwich who stated that
As far as I can learn, the last Bustard killed in Norfolk was a female, which was shot at Lexham near Swaffham, towards the end of the year 1838. The small flock, of which this bird was one, had for some years previously consisted of females only, the eggs of which were frequently picked up, having been dropped about at random in consequence of the absence of male birds, the latter having become extinct at an earlier date. (p158)
On top of that, Yarrell noted three of instances of the bird since 1845, when the 2nd edition of his A History of British Birds was published: a female seen in August 1849 on Salisbury Plain by G. R. Waterhouse of the British Museum; a female shot in January 1850 in Romney Marsh; and another bustard shot in December 1851 in Devonshire.
H.E. Dresser’s A History of the Birds of Europe included a report by Cecil Smith, which had been told to the Somersetshire Natural History Society on 6 February 1871 and then reported in Nature, that the bustard was even present in 1870 “when one or more small flocks visited out country, and examples were procured in Northumberland, Middlesex, Wiltshire, Somersetshire, and Devonshire.” Dresser even “had the satisfaction of examining in the flesh” a great bustard killed in Middlesex on 29 January 1871.
The 1832 extinction story, even as the last date of hatching, simply doesn’t hold up if you look at the reports near to the date. Yet 1832 is what gets reproduced over and over again. Just as I’ve noted before about searching for the last, extinction stories get reproduced and codified, especially when mobilised to support reintroduction projects. In other words, having a good story about the end, makes the new beginning more memorable.
For his book The Birds of Norfolk (vol. 2, 1866), Henry Stevenson had conducted exhaustive local research on oral histories about the bustard and extant stuffed specimens. He concluded that “the year 1838 is the last when examples known with certainty to have been killed”, but wisely cautioned:
The precise time at which the extinction of the Norfolk bustard took place, like that of the extinction of many other species, is not, perhaps, now to be determined with accuracy.
Perhaps more people should follow Stevenson’s reluctance to speak with certainty about the end of the bustard. 1832 was likely not the end, even though the end would come. A dead bird might have been in hand, but perhaps there were two more hiding in the bush.
Earlier this week, news came out that a common crane (Grus grus) egg was laid in southern Britain for the first time in 400 years. The parents are part of a crane reintroduction run by The Great Crane Project. The project has been reintroducing cranes into the Somerset levels area in southwestern Britain since 2010. This is first time a pair of their reintroduced cranes has successfully bred.
What’s interesting to me as a researcher is how the motivation for this project is put forward. Just like the beavers being reintroduced to Scotland, common cranes don’t need to be targeted for conservation. Unlike all the other crane species, which have been fairing quite poorly around the globe, common crane numbers are very high — there are estimated to be 300,000 in Europe, and another 100,000 in Asia. So common cranes don’t need to be brought to southern England for their own sake.
On top of that, unlike beavers, cranes don’t have a particularly strong ecological shaping power. They live in wetlands, but they aren’t wetland engineers, like the beavers. They are more ‘indicator’ species — in other words, their presence shows that a wetland is healthy, not that they actually make it healthy.
So why reintroduce the cranes? As I read through the project’s website and news articles about it from its inception in 2009, I discovered two reasons: (1) their extinction from Britain was anthropogenic so should be amended and (2) cranes are aesthetically pleasing. I’ll discuss each of these in reference to the primary reintroduction research I’ve been working on.
The first reason shows up in newspaper articles, with statements like “Hunting and the loss of wetlands led to cranes becoming extinct in Britain” and on the Project website with similar statements like “They were lost as a breeding bird around 400 years ago as a result of the draining of their wetland nesting sites, and hunting for food.” I do not doubt that wetland drainage was the cause of the crane decline. But, the emphasis on hunting seems rather misplaced.
The “Crane History” page of the Project uses oft cited numbers to stress the decimation of the crane population by people:
During a feast to enthrone Archbishop Neville in the fifteenth century, the guests consumed and incredible 204 cranes, and at Henry III’s Christmas meal in 1251 he and his guests consumed an impressive 115 cranes – along with a veritable bevy of bitterns, ducks and other unfortunate wildlife.
These figures for two dinners make it sound like people were out killing hundreds of cranes every day. This was simply not the case. These were exceptional events. Cranes were certainly eaten in medieval Britain, but in reality not often. Umberto Albarella (whose work on archeological finds of medieval animals is excellent) and Richard Thomas published an article on the consumption of wild fowl in medieval Britain and specifically stated that cranes would have been eaten very rarely:
The suggestion, however, that medieval people may have “dined on crane” may seem extremely unlikely if we consider that adult cranes are tough, gross, sinewy and engender a “melancholique bloud”.
Thus the suggestion that crane hunting was the reason for their decline is questionable. But from a rhetorical standpoint, framing the decline as directly anthropogenic may be deployed for garnering support for the project. What I’ve seen in the modern Scottish beaver reintroduction project is that this kind of “guilt-making” is regularly used to try to win over supporters. I’m not sure that it’s very successful, but it is something regularly done.
The second argument for bringing back cranes is that cranes are nice to look at. That’s the message from the Project’s Home Page:
Cranes are beautiful. Their trumpeting calls sound astonishing.
And they have a courtship dance that has to be seen to be believed.
I would completely agree that cranes are beautiful. I had the chance to visit the International Crane Foundation facility in Wisconsin in 2012 during the ASEH conference. I was mesmerised by the whooping cranes, which although from not far from where I lived for 14 years in Texas, I’d never seen live. Aesthetics and delighting in nature are nothing to scoff at. They are, in fact, important and valuable ecosystem services according to the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment.
I think that it’s important to make the reasons for a proposed reintroduction visible; to put them out there clearly so that discussions can happen about whether or not those reasons are “good enough” to warrant a reintroduction project. In this case, the reintroduction is not a conservation project per se because the bird doesn’t need conserving. It is a project all about us and our desire for cranes.
In this case, I wonder if the people involved in this project are simply impatient. They want cranes so badly right now that they are willing to go through great trouble to reintroduce them (read about the egg collection & juvenile raising procedures to appreciate how much work is being done), even though cranes have already begun reintroducing themselves into Britain. In 1979, three cranes wintered in Norfolk and the population has been growing since. Just like the Swedish muskox who migrated over from Norway, these cranes found good habitat and stayed. Are the reintroducers just too being impatient with the cranes? Would they “naturally” recolonize Britain if given enough time? Maybe. But reintroduction is the only quick way to build a population if you are craving for cranes in your backyard.