The World of Chinese - - Editor's Letter - BY TYLER RONEY

Who knew track­ers strapped to birds would cause such a fuss? Fol­low five very spe­cial cuck­oos (named by Bei­jing school­child­ren) as they defy ex­pec­ta­tions and pro­vide an ex­am­ple of con­ser­va­tion by ob­ser­va­tion.

The cuckoo isn’t the most beau­ti­ful of birds. It doesn’t have a BBC doc­u­men­tary-wor­thy mat­ing dance, its call never in­spired Keats, and aside from its sta­tus as a clock mas­cot it’s gen­er­ally known for be­ing a brood par­a­site. But a hand­ful of cuck­oos na­tive to north­ern China have been in­spir­ing chil­dren and en­thralling sci­en­tists the world over.

Over the past year, the Bei­jing Cuckoo Project has an­swered a fun­da­men­tal ques­tion about the mi­gra­tory habits of the com­mon cuckoo, but also, more im­por­tantly, in­tro­duced a whole new gen­er­a­tion to the won­ders of con­ser­va­tion.

The project seemed sim­ple enough: use sci­en­tists and lo­cal vol­un­teers to track Eurasian cuck­oos with light weight track­ers, and let the public watch. In May 2016, five cuck­oos were caught out­side Bei­jing (with a net, bird­song, and a stuffed fe­male cuckoo), tagged, and sent on their way.

“By de­vel­op­ing projects such as this and se­cur­ing main­stream me­dia cov­er­age, we aim to in­spire peo­ple who wouldn’t or­di­nar­ily read about birds,” Terry Town­shend of Bird­ing Bei­jing told TWOC. It worked. Per­haps the most fa­mous of th­ese birds is Flappy Mcflapperson, spon­sored by the Ori­en­tal Bird Club and named by the stu­dents of Dul­wich In­ter­na­tional School in Bei­jing. Largely due to her odd moniker, Flappy was a hit on Red­dit and the Times of In­dia ran a piece when she crossed into Jaipur.

It was thought that this bird—a small­ish species not known for its fly­ing abil­i­ties—per­haps win­tered in South­east Asia, but more op­ti­mistic bird­ers thought they might go as far as In­dia. Flappy Mcflapperson did, in­deed, go to In­dia...and then Bangladesh, then Oman and Ye­men, then So­ma­lia and Ethiopia, and when last re­ported, Flappy had made it to Kenya.

Sky­bomb Bolt, also named by the kids at Dul­wich, turned out to be even more im­pres­sive, trav­el­ing on a non­stop jour­ney from cen­tral In­dia to So­ma­lia, a 3,700 kilo­me­ter flight over the en­tire Ara­bian Sea. Jonathan Bail­lie, Di­rec­tor of Con­ser­va­tion at the Zoo­log­i­cal So­ci­ety of Lon­don, said of the event, “That a bird weigh­ing around 100 grams can fly more than 3,700 kilome­ters non-stop over the Ara­bian Sea is as­ton­ish­ing and, through the en­gage­ment of school chil­dren in the world’s most pop­u­lous coun­try, this project is in­spir­ing a new gen­er­a­tion.”

When the third bird, Meng Zhi Juan (梦之鹃) made it to So­ma­lia, the African Times cheered its safe jour­ney. As of De­cem­ber 8, Flappy and Meng were just a few hun­dred kilome­ters apart, both in Kenya.

The win­ter be­hav­ior of the com­mon cuckoo was a mys­tery in May, 2016, when the Bei­jing Wildlife Res­cue and Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion Cen­tre (BWRRC), the China Bird­watch­ing So­ci­ety (CBS), the Bri­tish Trust for Or­nithol­ogy (BTO), and Bird­ing Bei­jing worked to­gether to catch and tag the five spec­i­mens. To­day, that pic­ture is a lit­tle clearer.

But, even such a happy project isn’t free from harsh lessons. Of the orig­i­nal five, both Zhigui and Hope are be­lieved dead. On the death of Hope, Bei­jing Bird­ing an­nounced on its web­site, “With the lack of move­ment in Hope’s lo­ca­tion, es­pe­cially as she sum­mered so far north, this in­for­ma­tion leads us to be­lieve she has died and her body is in a po­si­tion where the tag’s so­lar panel is still re­ceiv­ing sun­light.”

Th­ese birds come from around Bei­jing, and for chil­dren in­ter­ested in study­ing an­i­mals, life in a megac­ity can seem hope­lessly de­void of na­ture. But Town­shend has been us­ing the Cuckoo Project to show kids in Bei­jing that there are plenty of birds to be found and that the science of ob­ser­va­tion is con­ser­va­tion.

“Bei­jing lies on the ‘Eastern Fly­way’ and hun­dreds of mil­lions of birds pass through ev­ery spring and au­tumn,” Town­shend told TWOC. “With a huge land­mass to the north, in­clud­ing Mon­go­lia and Siberia, rel­a­tively un­in­hab­ited by hu­mans, there are forests and tun­dra that pro­vide ideal breed­ing places for many dif­fer­ent species from cranes and storks to buz­zards, ea­gles, and smaller birds like buntings and war­blers.”

Bei­jing may be pol­luted, crowded, and paved, but it’s also a su­per high­way for a num­ber of im­por­tant species be­cause of the city’s geog­ra­phy. “More than 470 species of bird have been recorded in the cap­i­tal, more than Lon­don, Paris, Wash­ing­ton DC, and most other ma­jor cap­i­tal cities,” Town­shend said. “In spring and au­tumn, it’s pos­si­ble to see more than 100 species in a day at some of the best sites such as Yeyahu or Miyun Reser­voir. So my ad­vice to any­one in­ter­ested in bird­ing to pick up your binoc­u­lars, head out be­yond the 6th Ring Road and en­joy the birds.”

The BTO, which has been track­ing cuck­oos since 2011, as­sisted in this project in no small part be­cause there has been a re­duc­tion in the pop­u­la­tion of cuck­oos in the UK over the past 20 years; their pop­u­la­tion has de­clined by half. The cuck­oos of the Bri­tain have been mak­ing the same jour­ney from cen­tral Africa to Eu­rope for thou­sands of years, and the first step to stop­ping their de­cline is un­der­stand­ing their mi­gra­tory pat­terns. There are many dif­fer­ent species of cuckoo, but a crea­ture that trav­els such vast dis­tances can be a bell­wether that helps pin­point holes in in­ter­na­tional con­ser­va­tion.

They’ve sur­passed ex­pec­ta­tions, taught the world about birds, en­gaged chil­dren in one of the most im­por­tant as­pects of con­ser­va­tion, and even The New York Times ran with the head­line “Cyn­i­cal avian free­loader wins some re­spect.” Not bad for a brood par­a­site. As of the time of writ­ing, Meng Zhi Juan, Sky­bomb Bolt, and Flappy Mcflapperson were all still on the move. No one is re­ally sure how old the spec­i­mens were when they were tagged, but it will be an ex­cit­ing day for the bird­ers of Bei­jing if they man­age to make their way back.

Sky­bomb Bolt

The newly tagged

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