America’s got one, so does Sweden and even Bhutan – but Britain is strangely bereft of a national bird, a feathered symbol that is the essence of the country that it represents. It is hard to believe that Britain, known as a nation of animal lovers, has never voted to have a bird represent it in the global pecking order.
Some may say that the humble robin is Britain’s national bird. Indeed, the robin redbreast, pictured on many a Christmas card and the gardener’s friend, has always been viewed as the avian personification of “Britishness”. In a poll for the Times in 1961, it was voted the nation’s “favourite” bird, but it has never been officially recognised as a national bird.
The Americans, on the other hand, decided their national bird in 1776. Just after signing the Declaration of Independence on 4 July, a committee comprising Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin agreed on a design for the shield representing the states that also included a golden eagle, the most widely distributed eagle in the world whose range covers most of the northern hemisphere.
With that internationality in mind and the fact that it was already the symbol of several European nations, the federal lawmakers decided in 1782 that the bird should be changed to the bald eagle, a bird found only in the Nearctic region. Interestingly, Franklin wasn’t too impressed with this choice, pointing out that it was a bird of bad moral character that didn’t earn its living honestly. He was referring to the point that bald eagles were not too proud to scavenge for a meal. He even controversially suggested that the turkey be America’s national bird instead, but that was, perhaps sensibly, poo-pooed by Congress.
Fast forward to the 1970s and my time at primary school, when one day I decided to ask my classmates to name their favourite bird. At the time mine was the cheeky sparrow; a bird I felt was abundant and routinely overlooked by most people. To my delight, my class unanimously voted for sparrow. On reflection, the sparrow’s landslide victory may have been down to most of my peers’ limited knowledge of birds, restricted to just sparrows and pigeons. Anyway, I promised myself then that when I grew up I would ask that question again: what is your favourite bird?
Forty years on, that day of reckoning has finally arrived. Only now, it is more than just a question of favourite birds. It’s about national identity, politics, freedom of choice, educating kids and importantly, conservation. The Vote National Bird campaign will be Britain’s first chance to vote for a bird that best encapsulates all that is British and not just a favourite bird.
Between now and the end of October, voters could chose up to six from a list of 60 iconic birds on the the website, including the puffin, red kite, blackbird and robin.
The list also includes a few controversial birds such as the polarising ring-necked parakeet, pheasant and the ubiquitous feral pigeon. All are British in some way, but like in politics, the list has sparked a debate over what makes a bird British.
Take the parakeet: some see it as a noisy illegal immigrant while others see them as naturalised UK residents. Some have found it hard to accept that summer migrants like the nightingale can be national symbols feeling that at best they should be classed as honorary British because of the short amount of time they spend here (as little as six weeks in the Cuckoo’s case).
By the end of October, six birds will be shortlisted for the national poll. The second phase of voting will commence in January 2015 when the public will be able to vote for one of the six to become UK’s national bird. Votes can be cast via website, on tablet or mobile app.
Voting will run until the day of the general election in May when the national bird will be announced. It will be fantastic to join the ranks of the US, Angola and Latvia with our national bird hoisted upon our shoulders. Now that would be something to warble about.
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