Take On Nature: How the great crested grebe helped to bring about the RSPB

Great crested grebes – one part of their elaborate courtship display involves them facing each other, head plumage fanned, shaking their heads from side to side
Stephen Colton

THE much slower phrases of the chiffchaff’s song signal summer’s end, sounding like a sad, reluctant farewell before its frame of just nine grams takes to the skies to head south towards the Mediterranean basin, where it will remain until next spring.

Although autumn is in progress, I still hold on to some of summer’s highlights like the handsome great crested grebes I watched on Fermanagh’s Lower Lough Erne at Castle Archdale back in mid-summer. Along with the Little grebe, these birds are resident, breeding in many of our large, shallow loughs and slow flowing rivers.

Typical of most grebes, the legs and feet are set well back on the body, facilitating strong swimming but also making the bird awkward and clumsy on land. This earned it the name ‘arsefoot’, something referenced in the bird’s generic name, Podiceps, Latin for ‘rump footed’ and also in one of its Irish names ‘spágaire’, meaning clumsy walker.

Famed for its ornate head plumage, the bird’s grey crest with black head plumes and the chestnut-and-black tippets at the base of the head are unmistakeable in summer. The feathers of great crested grebes were once so prized for fashion accessories that they were named the satin bird.

By 1860 the trend for using soft grebe feathers as a fur substitute brought the great crested grebe close to extinction in Britain and Ireland. Fortunately, the bird made a good recovery and is now a common breeding species here.

This recovery was due in no small measure to the courage and determination of two English women who formed what is now the largest conservation organisation in Europe, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the RSPB.

In 1889, Emily Williamson from Didsbury, Manchester, in protest at the cruel trade in feathers for women’s hats, established The Plumage League, which campaigned against the use of great crested grebe and kittiwake skins and feathers in fur clothing.

At the same time, The Fur, Fin and Feather group was founded in Croydon by Eliza Phillips, with similar aims. The two women were brought together by their shared interests in animal welfare and in 1891, the groups amalgamated to from the Society for the Protection of Birds.

The society had two simple rules:

1. That Members shall discourage the wanton destruction of Birds, and interest themselves generally in their protection.

2. That Lady-Members shall refrain from wearing the feathers of any bird not killed for purposes of food, the ostrich only excepted (as it was not necessary to kill them for their feathers).

Initially the embryonic society, whose members were all women, was mocked by men but, undeterred, the organisation grew and in 1904 received a Royal Charter from Edward VII, making it the RSPB.

An important partner in helping to protect wild birds and their habitats in Ireland is Birdwatch Ireland, founded in 1968.

At the start of the breeding season, pairs of great crested grebes engage in a spectacular courtship display when, with their head plumage fanned, the birds face each other, shaking their heads from side to side. This is followed by the ‘weed ceremony or weed dance’ when the two birds make slow dives to collect weed before returning to the surface and swimming towards each other, heads held low.

Just before meeting, the birds rise from the horizontal position to a rigid vertical posture held by their quick-paddling webbed feet.

With the bird’s bright colours and magnificent courting dance now over, just like summer, perhaps it’s time for me to fully embrace autumn.

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