Series about the UK's birds. Our relationship with seabirds is an ancient and turbulent one, an untold chapter in the history of our rise and fall as a seafaring people.
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Britain is an island nation.
The sea is in our history and in our blood.
The British have a great affection for the sea, of course. A seafaring nation,
we go to the seaside for our holidays.
People are drawn to the sea just to look at it.
For centuries, Britons have travelled the oceans, as fishermen, explorers and traders.
This brought us into contact with sea birds,
both on the high seas and around our coasts.
Coastal communities established deep relationships with these birds, living off their meat,
their eggs and a host of other vital commodities.
Even in the middle of the 20th century, sea birds were still being exploited for food.
There was a sense that this was something that was given to them
in a bountiful providence, and it was there to harvest, and it would be wasteful not to harvest them.
Sea birds slipped into our literature
and our fashion.
They transformed Victorian agriculture
and created monumental family fortunes.
But how much longer will they shape our culture?
The story of our relationship with sea birds is an ancient and turbulent one,
like our relationship with the sea itself.
It's an untold chapter in the history of our rise and fall as a seafaring people.
Of all our birds, sea birds are the most enigmatic, the most remote from our daily lives.
There is something
remarkable, wonderful and extraordinary about sea birds.
I think it's to do with mystery.
So birds that inhabit the sea
acquire something of the...charisma of the sea.
A lot of them make a noise that sounds like something the other side of the world that we know.
with a kind of forlornness about it.
Much of this wild magic comes from the way they live their lives.
I think there's a powerful sense of the other about sea birds.
For most of the year, they're out at sea, and then for a period from...
April through till early July they're breeding on cliffs, sometimes extremely remote.
Britain's 12,000 miles of coastline
are one of the best environments for sea birds anywhere in the world.
Because of the North Atlantic drift and the continental shelf
and our rich seas, our sea birds are spectacular.
This is really our sort of Serengeti.
Some seven million sea birds,
of two dozen different species, nest on our coasts.
They do have these phenomenal sea bird cities on our towering sea cliffs.
They're bustling with activity,
marvellous smell comes wafting up the cliff,
which bowls people over when they first come to the edge of the cliff.
One can probably see ten to a hundred thousand birds
at every moment of the day,
and it's a kind of overwhelming abundance of life,
and that's part of the British landscape.
Today, these wonders are largely out of sight and out of mind.
But it was the sheer abundance of our sea bird colonies that
originally made them so important and irresistible to our ancestors.
That story starts on the remotest islands in the British Isles.
It's a place that looms out of nowhere for you.
You've got all this empty ocean, and suddenly there it is, Atlantis.
This cluster of islands and stacks lies off the Outer Hebrides,
far out in the Atlantic Ocean.
Every summer more than a million sea birds
come ashore to these rocky outcrops to breed.
St Kilda is a particular stronghold for our largest sea bird, the gannet.
It could have been designed by an Ancient Egyptian.
It looks like an Egyptian god.
It's just the most magnificent, beautiful, elegant bird.
And in the air it's a war machine.
It has this incredible way of fishing,
which is suddenly to dive vertically downwards,
and plunge into the sea for herring or mackerel.
And once one goes in, and if there is a shoal of fish,
then they all come piling in.
It was these sea birds that sustained a unique population,
known as the "bird people of St Kilda".
Their lifestyle was captured on film in the 1920s.
The most remarkable hunter-gatherer community in the UK,
until the middle of the 20th century, was the inhabitants of St Kilda.
A small, Gaelic-speaking community that lived in crofts
on the edge of this huge mountain on Hirta.
Essentially, their entire lives were bound up in what they could harvest
of wild birds from the cliffs and ledges
around this incredible set of islands.
St Kildans looked to sea birds
to meet almost all their subsistence needs.
They wore gannet necks and body parts as shoes, very short-lived shoes.
Their medicine was derived from the oil found in the stomach of the young fulmars.
They stored eggs in peat ash, which would last for months at a time.
And the St Kildans had to find ways to preserve the eggs and meat,
because the birds were only ashore for a few months each spring and summer.
Islanders from Lewis were still using similar preserving techniques in the 1960s.
They would take the corpses of these things
and keep them in little stone bothies called cleats.
And the wind would blow through and dry this meat to a type of biltong.
And that would see them through the lean times, until they could
start harvesting the birds again in the spring.
The meat of the young gannet, known as the guga,
was a staple part of their simple diet.
I would describe guga as almost the food of the gods.
There's something wonderful about it.
The only way to properly cook it is to boil it.
You know, mainlanders would probably deplore the taste of the food.
It tastes like a piece of chamois leather dipped in oil,
but I think it tastes like salt-mackerel-flavoured chicken.
Although thousands of birds were killed each year,
this had little or no effect on their populations,
because the islanders took only what they needed to survive.
None of the species which they harvested,
as far as we know, ever went extinct.
In a curious way, they were custodians.
They had a deep impulse to preserve the goose that laid the golden egg,
and...and they did.
Ultimately the modern world encroached on St Kilda,
undermining the hunter-gatherer tradition.
The population declined due to disease and emigration.
So in 1930 the surviving islanders decided to evacuate,
abandoning St Kilda to the birds.
It was only the remoteness of St Kilda
that allowed the bird people's culture to survive for so long.
Other coastal communities had given up the hunter-gatherer lifestyle centuries earlier,
heralding a long, dark chapter in our dealings with sea birds.
Those who went out to sea to make their living as fishermen and seafarers
encountered sea birds in their true element, the open ocean.
Here, far from home,
one bird in particular made a deep and lasting impression on them.
I think when you're sailing,
when one of these magnificent birds with a seven-foot wingspan,
an albatross, suddenly appears,
and it appears out of the sky,
and it doesn't move its wings.
I mean, it just tilts, glides,
and it's exploiting the up currents from surface of the sea and so on.
So just occasionally one little flap, and then it's off again.
All those explorers who set off from Britain
on sailing boats going around the world,
in these vast areas where they saw nothing,
suddenly this incredible bird appeared on their horizon
and came up beside their boats and followed them through the storms.
And they must have felt a real attachment, I think, to albatross
and would have come home and told about this bird that tracked the oceans with them.
This mysterious tendency for the albatross to track sailing vessels
gave rise to the pivotal scene in a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge,
a poem that has entrenched the albatross in our popular culture.
The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner is certainly one of the most famous poems in the English language.
Which is a very interesting thing to say for one reason immediately,
which is that it's a very long poem.
The poem describes a relationship of a seaman with an albatross.
The Mariner's ship is blown off course in a huge storm,
ending up in the icy wastes of Antarctica.
Then, miraculously, an albatross appears.
At length did cross an Albatross,
Through the fog it came
As it had been a Christian soul
We hailed it in God's name.
It's a symbol of whiteness,
of conscience, of souls, of Christianity.
And it's big, like an angel.
It's more than a bird, it's a flying symbol.
This enigmatic bird leads the ship back into warmer waters,
saving the sailors from certain death.
Then, inexplicably, the Mariner shoots the bird with his cross-bow.
His shipmates are horrified.
One of the common bits of folklore about all maritime sea-going communities
was that the souls of lost mariners entered the bodies of sea birds
such as petrels, albatross, shearwaters.
And so killing these birds was in some sense taboo.
Thus the Mariner brought bad luck upon his shipmates.
The wind dropped and the ship was becalmed for days on end.
Water, water, every where, And all the boards did shrink
Water, water, every where
Nor any drop to drink.
It's about the needless nihilism of the Mariner himself,
who slays the albatross and brings disaster on his boat and his crew,
all of whom die except himself.
And he is destined to travel throughout the rest of his life,
repenting and telling the tale of his terrible destruction of this bird.
The poem speaks to the casual destructiveness that would characterise
our relationship with sea birds until the late 19th century.
Coleridge's Mariner was a familiar figure during Britain's heyday as a maritime power.
At its height, thousands of ships were travelling the trade routes of the North Atlantic.
These mariners drove to extinction an extraordinary, flightless bird,
the great auk, Britain's equivalent of the dodo.
Alas, I've never seen a great auk,
but I imagine it as a huge, northern hemisphere penguin
with an upright posture.
And the two most striking features are the white splash on the face
and that very large daggered bill.
It was the largest of the auk family.
Puffins are auks, puffins, razorbills, guillemots.
And it is really, was, a giant razorbill.
The great auk bred across the North Atlantic in an ark of islands from Newfoundland
through to Iceland and Greenland and further south to Orkney and Shetland.
It was perhaps, at one stage,
one of the commonest birds that has ever lived on the planet.
Common it may have been, but the great auk had one major disadvantage over other sea birds.
They didn't need to fly,
and through the years their wings became small,
so that made them very vulnerable to predation by people.
This vulnerability became all too apparent
when the trade routes opened across the North Atlantic, between Britain and her colonies in the New World.
When the first whalers and fishermen went to the Davis Strait,
between Greenland and Newfoundland,
they were living on cod, because that's what they were catching all day.
It must have been wonderful to be able to take a nice, big, fat, juicy bird like a great auk.
Hungry mariners, based on the British colony of Newfoundland,
sailed out to sea bird islands where the great auks bred alongside their smaller relatives, guillemots,
which still survive today.
Here they found huge numbers of great auks, there for the taking.
It was perfectly possible to put a sail down, get your men ashore,
get them to drive the birds onto the sail
and then just tip them into the boat
and have people in the boat to club them.
Then you could salt them and that would keep you going for the rest of the time you were out there.
However many they killed, there were masses of others there.
Over time, the great auk became even more valuable as a commodity for its feathers,
which were used to stuff pillows and bedding.
The feather bed industry, in really quite a short space of time,
caused such huge destruction amongst those populations
with these birds just being rounded up,
driven into stone enclosures and then just pulled out, clubbed,
dumped into boiling water to get the feathers off quickly.
And this was done on a huge, industrial scale.
By the end of the 18th century, the great auk population
was in a state of collapse on its main breeding grounds.
As a result, great auks were very rarely seen
at the edge of their range, in places like St Kilda.
There's a horrifying account of three men in St Kilda,
who went out to a small island just off St Kilda.
They came round a corner and saw this huge bird.
That was the last auk in Britain.
And the St Kildans caught and captured it.
They had never seen such a bird before, and they believed it to be a witch.
And they decided, instead of eating it, to imprison it for a couple of days.
On about the third day, lo and behold, a mighty storm arose.
And the bird shrieked continuously.
The men became convinced that the bird had supernatural powers.
And that it had brought the storm and they would never get off the islet as long as the bird was alive.
So they went out and bashed it, clubbed it to death.
Such was the demise of Britain's last great auk,
the only British bird to go extinct in historical times.
And yet Victorian bird experts could not accept that this was really happening
to a once abundant species.
It is a measure of a kind of senseless abuse of the sea.
It's the way in which we think the sea is limitless.
And therefore we cannot believe that these resources are finite.
We now know that the world's last great auk was killed in Iceland, in June 1844.
But a decade later, two egg collectors still harboured the hope
that a few individuals may have survived.
A couple of British ornithologists,
John Whalley and his friend, Alfred Newton,
decided to make an expedition to Iceland to try to settle the question either way.
The Iceland trip was fruitless, and the men returned home empty-handed.
Later, Alfred Newton wrote an article on the great auk,
which caught the eye of the well-known novelist, the Reverend Charles Kingsley.
He actually read Newton's very poignant account of the destruction of these birds,
and the hope expressed by Alfred Newton that there might still just be a few pairs alive.
It was a vain hope, but it provided the inspiration
for a memorable scene in Kingsley's most famous book, The Water-Babies.
The child hero, Tom, encounters the last great auk,
or as it was also known, the garefowl...
And there he saw the last of the garefowl, standing upon the all alone stone, all alone.
Perched on a rocky outcrop, the elderly bird recounts the story of her species' demise.
"If you had only had wings", said Tom, "then you might have all flown away too."
Kingsley was writing in the midst of an unprecedented population explosion.
So to keep pace with demand for food, Britain's farmers needed to dramatically increase production.
it was sea birds that would fuel this agricultural revolution.
At this point,
in the mid-19th century,
there was a fairly severe shortage of fertilisers.
We just weren't keeping enough cattle
to fertilise the land sufficiently, just with dung.
So you needed to try to find other sources.
Whoever came up with a solution to the fertiliser shortage was going to make a fortune.
That man was a merchant called William Gibbs.
Gibbs sunk much of his wealth into the Tyntesfield estate, on the outskirts of Bristol,
turning it into one of the grandest houses of the Victorian age.
The source of Gibbs' fertile fortune was far less glamorous, according to a rhyme of the day:
"Mr Gibbs made his tibbs, selling the turds of foreign birds."
Tyntesfield was built on a foundation of guano - the droppings of millions of sea birds.
Of all the stories of abuse of a natural resource,
guano is probably the most extreme.
The guano didn't come from British sea bird colonies,
but from thousands of miles away, off the coast of Peru.
The particular feature of Peru was that the Humboldt current,
coming up from the south, was a very cold current,
with upwellings of cold water.
And this supported a huge plankton population.
That then supported a huge fish population, in particular anchovies.
And the fish population then supported this absolutely gigantic bird population.
And millions of birds just on the one island at any particular time.
The main guano-producing birds were the Guanay cormorant and the brown pelican.
Over centuries, their droppings had accumulated to extraordinary depths,
forming mineral-rich mountains.
Peruvian guano was widely recognised at the time as certainly the best fertiliser anywhere.
Because it was a natural product, and it had all the main plant foods,
nitrogen, potash, and phosphate.
Gibbs had negotiated a deal with the Peruvian government, giving him a monopoly on the guano trade.
But he still faced a problem - how to get the stuff back to Britain.
In many respects, it was an extraordinary thing to do.
You were taking guano, literally from the other side of the world,
very dangerous and difficult voyage,
around some of the stormiest seas in the world, Cape Horn, of course, and then right across the Atlantic.
Once the guano arrived in Britain, Gibbs sold it in vast quantities
to farmers desperate for an efficient fertiliser.
Guano gave a massive boost to the nation's agricultural output.
And it made William Gibbs the wealthiest commoner in England.
This was in sharp contrast to the men actually mining the guano in Peru.
The workforce was organised by Peruvian landowners,
and relied on slaves, convicts and, by the 1850s,
foreign indentured labour.
They took Chinese coolies from the Far East,
building them into contracts they knew nothing about.
They got to these desolate equatorial islands,
and the conditions were completely appalling.
There are few photographs of this period, but an impression of the environment the coolies worked in
can be gained from early 20th-century footage of Peruvian labourers.
And the guano, once it was loosened up from the solid rock that it formed on the island itself,
became a noxious powder that blistered your lungs and your nose.
The normal amount the Chinese labourer had to remove was about five tonnes,
but sometimes eight tonnes a day, and he had to do everything from the original pickaxe,
separating the manure from stones,
carrying the stuff to the edge of the cliffs, and then great canvas chutes into the boats below.
Given the lack of regard for the human labourers, it's not surprising that there was no concern at all
for the birds producing the guano.
Their nest sites were destroyed by the mining, and they were subject to continual disturbance.
The birds disappear from the islands.
The whole question of conservation, of holding on to the bird population
didn't really come until the 20th Century.
They were typical of the boom-bust pattern of maritime harvest.
It was one of the most grotesque dashes for growth,
regardless of the consequences, that there has ever been.
The wanton destruction to man and bird in South America went largely unnoticed back in Britain.
But by the 1860s, the welfare of sea birds at home could not be so easily ignored.
For the first time, voices were about to be raised
against the unbridled exploitation of British sea birds.
The majority of our sea bird colonies are on remote rocky islands,
like the Bass Rock, off the east coast of Scotland...
..and the Farne Islands, off Northumberland.
The isolation of these places offers the birds some protection
from terrestrial predators, both man and beast.
But there are a few sea bird colonies on the British mainland,
such as the cliffs of Bempton and Flamborough Head, in Yorkshire.
These cliffs are a favourite haunt of the kittiwake.
The kittiwake is a very delicate gull.
It's also a gull which tells you its name -
when you go to the colonies, there it is, shrieking away, "Kittiwake! Kittiwake!"
It has these wings that are black ended, as though they've been dipped in black ink.
The thing that makes kittiwakes different from just about every gull
is that it breeds on narrow cliff ledges, so it's relatively safe from terrestrial predators.
So with a black-headed gull,
if a predator like a fox or hedgehog comes into the colony,
all the birds fly up and mob that predator and try and drive it away.
Kittiwakes, on their narrow cliff ledge,
never do that mobbing because there is no value in it.
This tendency to sit tight made kittiwakes very vulnerable to human hunters.
At Bempton and Flamborough Head, local people had always harvested the sea birds for food.
But by the Victorian period, this had escalated into an intensive, commercial use of birds,
their eggs, and, in the case of kittiwakes, their plumage.
They would catch the bird, presumably with nets,
and they would cut their wings off, the bits that they wanted,
and throw the bird, wingless, back into the water.
The wings were used by hat makers in Paris and London and New York.
The people that were harvesting the sea birds at Flamborough at that time
were doing it for profit. There was a sense of manifest destiny,
that this was something that was given to them in bountiful providence,
and that it was there to harvest,
it would be wasteful not to harvest them.
Harvesting the kittiwakes, though cruel,
was at least commercially justifiable.
But now they became targets for a very different element of British society.
The burgeoning middle classes, who aspired to the leisure activities of the aristocracy.
Once the railways made access to these coastal locations easier,
hunting parties came to these sea bird colonies to shoot these birds,
which were so easy to shoot, because they sat so tightly on the nest.
Boarding so-called pleasure boats in Scarborough, groups of men would sail towards the colonies of birds.
And then they would be taken underneath the cliffs,
and would blaze away at the parent birds, sitting on eggs...
..killing as many as they could, because the size of the bag
was presumably the measure of the success of the sport.
And it was having a devastating effect on breeding numbers.
But the activities of these shooting parties didn't go unnoticed.
And it was the sight of large numbers of dead, dying birds,
and chicks whose parents had been killed left in the nest,
that started to upset people.
One person who took exception to this slaughter was the ornithologist Alfred Newton - the same man
who 13 years earlier had searched unsuccessfully for the last great auk.
By the late 1860s,
Alfred Newton was Professor of Comparative Anatomy at Cambridge.
He'd realised what had happened to the great auk a generation earlier,
he saw that there was a danger of it happening again.
To publicise his concerns,
in 1868 he made a calculatedly emotional speech
to the British Society for the Advancement of Science.
At the present time, I believe there is no class of animal so cruelly persecuted
as the sea-fowl - that a stop should be put to this wanton and atrocious destruction of a species
I think none of my audience will deny.
Just as Newton had hoped, his sensational speech was picked up by the press and widely reported.
And for the first time, the issue touched a nerve with the British public.
There was a sense developing that this slaughter
on the cliffs was somehow to Yorkshire's shame.
And a combination of local landowners and MPs
and members of the clergy got together
and in 1868, formed an association for the protection of sea birds.
As a result of their work, a bill for the preservation of sea birds
was presented to Parliament the following year.
And they came up with a fascinating strategy, and it is based on utilitarianism,
in a way, this idea that the birds were useful.
They did two things - when the fishermen of Bridlington were coming home on foggy days,
and they couldn't see the cliffs, the cries of the sea birds alerted them to the presence
of the cliffs. The birds were, in other words, the Flamborough pilots.
And the second argument was that the sea birds flew inland
and harvested pests on agricultural land.
And those two arguments carried the day.
The Sea Birds Preservation Act came into law in June 1869 - the very first act of Parliament
protecting British birds.
This marked a turning point in the history of our relationship with sea birds.
By the late Victorian era, a new sensibility towards birds and other wildlife was beginning to emerge.
We had finally begun to appreciate birds
not just for how we could exploit them, but for their beauty, and for our delight in them.
And yet where sea birds were concerned, we still knew so little about their real lives.
One of the wonderful things about sea birds
is that they are essentially very mysterious.
Aspects of their behaviour are very, very little understood.
Although much was already known about the birds of our countryside,
it was only in the 20th century that science would
begin to unravel some of the mysteries of sea birds.
One man who pioneered their study was the Welsh naturalist Ronald Lockley.
As a young man, he hadn't set out to be a sea bird scientist.
In fact he was rather a dreamer, with an entrepreneurial streak.
In 1926, Lockley took a lease on an uninhabited island called Skokholm,
off the southwest coast of Wales.
When Lockley turned up on Skokholm,
his initial plan was to make a lot of money.
And he wanted to do this by
breeding giant chinchilla rabbits,
which are a sort of giant, fluffy version of a wild rabbit.
Unfortunately, there was an indigenous rabbit population eating the grass
required by his chinchillas.
He tried to exterminate all the rabbits on Skokholm and failed.
He tried all sorts of ways. In fact, he tried cyanide gas,
it is all quite a grim story.
His experiment failed completely,
because the market for rabbit skins for fashion completely crashed during the Depression.
But Lockley's interest in sea birds was directly born out of this failure.
While trying to trap the indigenous rabbits in their warrens,
he kept catching a strange, burrow-nesting bird instead - the Manx shearwater.
The Manx shearwater is like a tiny albatross.
It's a true sea bird, spending most of its life on the sea.
It's a bird that needs to come ashore only to breed,
and it lays a single white egg in a burrow, like a rabbit hole, that it digs itself.
And it comes ashore just at night.
Under the cover of darkness, these ungainly creatures feed their young,
calling to each other all the while.
When he first heard this strange cacophony, it took Lockley by surprise.
Until this time, no-one had attempted to study the behaviour of Manx shearwaters,
or indeed any other sea birds, in detail.
Lockley became enthralled with these mysterious creatures, and devised
imaginative experiments to study the most intriguing aspects of their behaviour.
One of the things he was fascinated by was the navigational
capacity of the shearwaters. And in one of these experiments, he took a bird from Skokholm to Devon,
and released it, and within a few hours, the bird
was back in its nest burrow.
And then he took this further, and they took a bird to Venice...
And it was about a 900-kilometre journey overland.
But of course a sea bird such as a Manx shearwater would almost certainly
have taken a sea route, which was a hugely circuitous route
through the Straits of Gibraltar, and then up through the Atlantic,
and I think it took 17 days, and a journey of something in the region of 4,000 kilometres.
What it reveals is the puniness of human travel efforts.
You know, this is a bird that has to find its way
across the open ocean, by itself, feeding and travelling for days.
I think that's what captivates us in part about sea birds in general,
is the way in which they treat the open ocean, this featureless landscape, as home.
Ronald Lockley's legacy goes beyond his discoveries about shearwaters.
On Skokholm he also created the UK's first bird observatory, in 1933.
But he had to leave his island paradise after the outbreak of the Second World War,
when it was commandeered by the armed forces.
The sea blockade and food shortages of wartime
meant that despite protection laws, sea birds were back on the menu
for the first time in a generation.
Shags were eaten in the war, and cormorants were eaten in the war.
In fact, most birds would have been eaten in the wartime.
They shot shags on Fair Isle, and they sent them to London for food.
But instead of shags, they called them black ducks.
So, by the end of the war, shags were very scarce, and as
soon as they saw a boat, they were in flight.
But this use of sea birds for meat was short-lived.
In the post-war period, our contact with ocean-going sea birds would diminish.
Gradually, Britain's maritime power waned,
and fewer people made their living at sea. The end of the war
also brought a scientist to Britain who would demystify our commonest
sea birds - Niko Tinbergen.
Tinbergen is one of the great pioneers of animal behaviour studies in the field.
He saw that the kinds of experiments that had been going on, which involved
looking at animals in cages, and in captivity, was pretty pointless, because he thought that animals
in captivity would not display the kind of behaviours that they would in the wild. So, what he did was
take animal behaviour studies into the field, and it was very ground-breaking.
For this kind of work, it is not enough to pay occasional visits to the birds.
We must live with our animals literally day and night.
Tinbergen grew up in the Netherlands,
where, as a teenager, he became interested in nature study.
But his career as a zoologist was interrupted by Nazi occupation of his homeland,
and he was imprisoned in a concentration camp for his political views.
This experience was to shape his later research.
Having been kept in prison left its mark on him, because he was so passionate
about getting out onto the cliff tops, getting away from
his Oxford laboratory
then getting out into the field.
Leaving the dark memories of the Netherlands behind, Tinbergen moved to England after the war.
And he came to Oxford and set up an animal behaviour study group here.
I was lucky to be one of the first members of that group.
Gulls became the major focus of his study group at Oxford.
One of Niko's principles in studying birds was to always go for the most common birds.
The more common and populous a bird is, the easier it is to study.
And he loved gulls because they were common.
Tinbergen's research on gulls was popularised through a bestselling book,
The Herring Gull's World, and a successful TV film made with broadcaster Hugh Falkus.
The beginning of it is great.
He starts off shaking his fist at the camera and scowling to show aggression,
which everyone understands.
When I do this,
you know at once what I mean - the angry face,
the clenched fist convey a mood of aggression.
It's a simple form of communication.
It's about a gull colony,
and how gull colonies are always just at the edge of chaos
There's murder, there are chicks being eaten, it's just a complete disaster zone.
This is a great bird city.
This is a city of thieves and murderers.
There are all potential killers and eaters of their neighbours' chicks.
But social life in bird city is made possible
by a highly complex system of communication -
a language comprising posture, movement, colour and sound.
He showed that there were very,
very precise patterns of behaviour and signals,
which gulls knew and understood, which basically kept the
colony from tipping into total chaos.
And I think if you look at the way in which this is presented in the programme,
it's very clear that Tinbergen himself was very worried
about the way that humans were going, and he thought that in the future, overpopulation, crowding,
it was all a bit like a gull colony, it was going to be a disaster for us.
So he saw this as being a kind of lesson for humanity - how to negotiate these primal instincts.
By the late '60s, the way we thought about the natural world was changing.
Tinbergen's work reflected the ecological anxieties of the era,
as well as revealing the habits of sea birds to the viewing public.
And yet, as we became a nation of land lovers,
sea birds became even more remote from our daily lives.
They were increasingly out of sight and out of mind.
Overnight, one event would change all this.
If there was one moment in our history when sea birds truly invaded the national consciousness,
it was the Torrey Canyon disaster of March 1967, off the end of Land's End.
'Saturday March 18th, and the Torrey Canyon, a giant tanker on charter to British Petroleum,
'goes aground on the treacherous Seven Stone Rocks between the Isles of Scilly and Land's End.
'On board, 120,000 tonnes of crude oil.'
The Torrey Canyon was the 13th largest ship in the world
and she was rushing to get the tide at Milford Haven,
and Captain Rugiati decided - against all established thinking,
which was to go round to the west of the Isles of Scilly and swing round into the Bristol Channel -
to cut the gap between the Scillies and Land's End
and, overnight, he managed to run aground this enormous ship on the Seven Stones reef,
The next morning, the people of Britain woke up
to the first-ever massive environmental catastrophe on their coastline.
'At once, oil began to spew from her.
'In no time, there was an ominous slick of oil eight miles long.'
The Torrey Canyon was the first environmental disaster to unfold in the television era.
Perhaps the most powerful images of the Torrey Canyon disaster were not what we might have expected.
It wasn't the broken ship lying on the Seven Stones reef.
The most powerful images were sea birds covered in oil that were being washed up on Cornish beaches.
These were pitiful images that said an awful lot to us
about our mastery and domination over the natural world.
They certainly were emotive and people reacted to them.
The sea bird centres in Cornwall were inundated with box-load after box-load
of, sadly, doomed-to-die sea birds.
Chief Inspector Gardner, you've got a lot of birds...
One man on the frontline was Tony Soper, a young broadcaster and naturalist.
We had no idea how much damage this was likely to cause,
but in West Cornwall, they had a big problem with guillemots especially.
Any number of outfits were trying to clean these things up.
People were setting up rescue stations right, left and centre -
especially hairdressing salons
because of course they had the little showers for doing people's hair
and they were putting detergent on these birds,
which got the oil off very effectively but left them without any grease and they couldn't fly.
So an awful lot of birds were put back in the sea totally unable to manage.
A disaster on this scale required decisive action from the government
and the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, waded in.
He of course was viewing this not only as our national leader,
but also somebody who was intimately involved with the Isles of Scilly.
He'd holidayed there since the 1950s, it was his own personal paradise.
In an effort to spare the beaches and the sea bird colonies from the oil,
Wilson's government made the controversial decision to bomb the stricken vessel.
Hundreds of bombs, and even napalm, were used to ignite fuel in the hull
in the hope that it would all burn off.
Harold Wilson went to the top of St Martin's,
one of the islands on the Scillies, and stood there with the people of the Isles of Scilly
and watched the aircraft come roaring in and dropping incendiary bombs on this vast supertanker.
But even after the ship was sunk,
large quantities of oil made its way to the shore
and a clean-up effort was required.
It was BP at the time and they poured masses of detergent on the beaches,
right, left and centre, all the way along the beaches on this oil,
which, in the long run, was a mistake.
In the aftermath, the nation reflected on how ill-prepared it had been for such a disaster.
There was a powerful realisation in government that there was no overarching administrative body
to deal with an environmental disaster like this in Britain.
The ensuing Royal Commission on Pollution eventually led to important changes in government.
And in a way, the Torrey Canyon disaster of 1967
led to the first-ever Department of the Environment within government,
anywhere in the world, here in Britain.
For a few weeks in 1967, environmental disaster
propelled sea birds into our national consciousness.
Soon after, scientists launched the first sea bird census to take stock of Britain's breeding colonies.
But sea birds might easily have slipped from public view once again
were it not for a dramatic change in the behaviour of one group of birds.
For better or worse, this change would bring more of us
into direct contact with sea birds than ever before.
The poor old herring gull.
There's no herring gull that's seen a herring in the last 50 years!
They live off other things now.
Most people encounter sea birds today
because of some shock-horror about
gulls eating the Flake from your ice cream in a city centre.
They're not exotic, they're not the other any more,
and they're a problem when they get out of their own sphere.
Keep to the ocean but don't invade my other territory.
Two species have moved inland - the lesser black-backed gull
and its paler-winged relative, the herring gull.
They're obvious birds, they're big birds,
and they're getting about their business in an obvious way.
We see courtship, we see them nesting, laying eggs,
feeding their young, and during that process they become quite aggressive.
And that's a shock to us because in our little lives in the cities, we don't expect that sort of behaviour.
That doesn't happen here, it happens on TV or out in the country.
As a young sea bird researcher, Tim Birkhead had first-hand experience of a gull attack.
This gull came down,
making this terrible wheezing noise,
put both feet out,
hit me on the back of the head,
and vomited and defecated simultaneously,
-so I got vomit down the front of my head and gull
-down the back of my neck.
It left me feeling sick for the whole day.
Not the defecation bit, just the whack on the back of the head was so unexpected.
Nesting seagulls will attack any bird or mammal
that invades their territory because they're protecting their young.
Our contemporary dislike for gulls in our towns and cities is in stark contrast
to the way we used to feel about them when they lived at the coast.
If you think of the opening signature music to Desert Island Discs,
the wailing of gulls is the soundtrack of the sea.
The child with their bucket and spade, the sound of seagulls in the background -
it's part of a repertoire of recreational holiday life in Britain.
That wonderful laughing call of the herring gull,
throwing back its head and making that extraordinary noise.
That's the image most people have of gulls.
Or at least, it used to be.
Ironically, our efforts to solve a major pollution problem inadvertently created the conditions
that would encourage gulls to settle inland.
The Great Smog of 1952 killed many thousands of people.
The government's response was the 1956 Clean Air Act,
which prevented the burning of household waste.
So in the following decades, ever-increasing quantities of rubbish
were hauled off to landfill sites, providing a bonanza for the gulls.
We've got massive landfill sites on the edges of our cities,
which is a great food source for them and they've taken advantage of that. They're victims of our excess.
Gulls are the most adaptable of all sea birds
with extraordinarily catholic tastes, but their scavenging behaviour doesn't endear them to us.
The gulls are exploiting as a food supply human waste,
to which we ourselves feel some feelings of disgust.
They became in a sense a kind of metaphor for human waste
and I think that's part of why they attracted so much hostility.
Gull populations in some British cities have grown to the point where they are now considered vermin.
And yet we only see part of the picture.
We have a sense of gulls being ubiquitous and commonplace but in fact,
one of the most frequent nesters on people's roofs has declined substantially.
Up to 50% of all herring gulls have gone in the last 50 years.
This is because the original, coastal colonies of herring gulls have collapsed due to lack of food.
Fishermen no longer lay out their catches on the harbour side, nor gut fish at sea.
Over-fishing has also reduced the gulls' food supply.
Herring gulls have survived until now because they are truly exceptional.
They've adapted from being sea birds into urban birds.
But other species of sea birds may not be so lucky.
We are not managing the marine resources in Britain well, or Europe,
and the sea birds show us that.
Sadly for us, our best-loved sea bird is one of the species now in decline.
Even though most of us have never seen a puffin, we feel we know this comical little bird.
The model for countless children's toys, and the inspiration
for the world's most celebrated series of children's books.
It's like a toy animal, really.
You just look at it and you simply cannot believe that this is the real thing. It cannot be a real bird.
How can it exist like that?
The puffin's predicament provides a salutary warning for the future of our relationship with sea birds.
The iconic view of a puffin is this bird
with this incredibly bright bill coming ashore,
running up to its burrow with all these little fish, head to tail, arranged through its bill.
Puffins feed these nutritious little fish, sand eels, to their growing chicks.
In recent years, many chicks have starved to death because of a shortage of sand eels.
This is partly due to over-fishing and also down to a more serious long-term problem - climate change.
Sea temperatures are rising and it means that species that support
our sea birds - sand eels - are heading north.
They want that cooler water and what will follow them? Our sea birds.
In the last ten years, climate change has already contributed
to a significant fall in the total number of sea birds breeding in Britain.
And if we lost our sea birds, we would not be just losing
colonies of birds, we'd be losing a whole part of our heritage, a whole part of what makes Britain Britain.
Arguably, we have lost much of this heritage already.
As our dependence on sea birds gradually diminished,
we developed a deeper aesthetic appreciation of them.
But at the same time, their cultural relevance to us began to recede.
We may have protected sea birds and learned more about them,
but now our mismanagement of the seas threatens their very future.
So today, they float in our peripheral vision,
as ghostly reminders of the seafaring people we once were.
Next time, in the final episode of Birds Britannia, we explore the extraordinary impact
the birds of the British countryside
have had on our nation's history and culture.
From nightingales in poetry, to grouse on the Glorious 12th...
..these birds have not only shaped our rural landscape,
but also defined what the countryside really means to us.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
The British people's relationship with seabirds is an ancient and turbulent one, like our relationship with the sea itself. It is an untold chapter in the history of our rise and fall as a seafaring people, a story of conflict, exploitation and, finally, understanding.