Bird Watching (UK) - - Species Wryneck - WORDS: BEN MAC­DON­ALD

In the 1800s, the Wry­neck was a fa­mil­iar sight in Bri­tain, but it’s now ex­tinct here. So, what hap­pened? And why aren’t we try­ing to bring it back?

ast Septem­ber, I read that a Wry­neck had been seen in south Glouces­ter­shire. A mi­grant to our shores, this cryptic wood­pecker was pre­sum­ably head­ing back to trop­i­cal Africa from its breed­ing grounds in Scan­di­navia. Each year, Wry­necks pass through Bri­tain. In spring, a lucky few bird­ers dis­cover them on our south and east­ern coasts. In au­tumn, they re­turn, in greater num­bers. But 200 years ago, the nat­u­ral­ists of south Glouces­ter­shire would not need to wait till au­tumn to see the ‘Cuckoo’s Mate’.

Wry­necks once called from ev­ery or­chard in the Sev­ern Vale, as in much of the English coun­try­side. To­day, our gen­er­a­tion re­gards these cryptic won­ders as tran­sients – head­ing north and south. How ex­cit­ing that this ex­tra­or­di­nary wood­pecker once bred across the whole of Eng­land. How odd that its de­cline still puzzles us. How dis­ap­point­ing that we have never sought to bring it back. So, how did we lose the Wry­neck – and how can we re­store it to our coun­try­side? At the start of the 18th Cen­tury, Wry­necks nested through­out the low­lands of ev­ery English county, ex­cept Northum­ber­land, in the north, and Corn­wall, in the west. Their range ex­tended to the en­tirety of Wales. The Wry­neck’s fa­mil­iar­ity to non-nat­u­ral­ists across Bri­tain at that time is at­tested by the amount of folk­lore that ac­cu­mu­lated around it. Wry­necks were called ‘Cuckoo’s Mate’, be­cause of their ar­rival in Bri­tain days be­fore this other fa­mil­iar vis­i­tor. In Glouces­ter­shire, they were re­ferred to as ‘Cuckoo’s Foot­men’. In the Mid­lands, Tun­stall, in 1784, called them the ‘Cuckoo’s Maiden’. The Welsh name, ‘Gwas-y-gog’, mean­ing ‘Cuckoo’s Ser­vant’, re­flected the be­lief that Wry­necks used to build the nest and hatch the young of the Cuckoo. Across Europe, Wry­necks were be­lieved to hold pow­ers of sex­ual magic – their head-turn­ing able to turn the heads of wives back to ‘cuck­olded’ hus­bands. The Wry­neck’s use in witch­craft and rit­ual was, like­wise, due to fas­ci­na­tion with its snake-like head move­ments – twist­ing, while

hiss­ing, if dis­turbed at a nest. The first part of the Wry­neck’s Latin name, Jynx torquilla, refers to the ‘jinx’ that birds were be­lieved to cast in turn­ing their head. The fa­mil­iar­ity of a species is of­ten at­tested by how well it be­comes in­grained in the folk­lore of a coun­try. At the start of the 19th Cen­tury, Wry­necks, it seems, were ev­ery­where. A cen­tury and a half later, they were all but ex­tinct. The best sum­mary of the Wry­neck’s de­cline is writ­ten by J F Monk (1963). In the early 19th Cen­tury, Wry­necks were com­mon across most of Eng­land. By the 1820s, the first re­trac­tions in range be­came ap­par­ent. In Durham, for ex­am­ple, birds com­mon in the 1830s had de­clined ‘lamentably’ by the 1840s, and were largely lost by the 1850s. In Der­byshire, birds were reg­u­lar un­til 1831, but rare by 1880. By the 1850s, birds were con­sid­ered un­com­mon across Wales, with the last breed­ing in the north con­firmed in 1866. Pop­u­la­tions in Cum­bria and Lan­cashire, wellestab­lished in the 1820s, were scarce by 1850. Be­tween 1850 and 1900, mas­sive de­clines of the Wry­neck were un­der­way. Each county seems to have fol­lowed spe­cific trends of its own. Glouces­ter­shire, for ex­am­ple, had birds com­monly un­til at least 1829, from when on they de­clined. Cam­bridgeshire had good num­bers from 1827 to 1869, but birds were scarce by 1880. On the Isle of Wight, birds were rel­a­tively com­mon in 1845 but rare by 1860. In Es­sex, birds were ‘heard in all di­rec­tions’ in 1832, but the species was lo­calised by 1890.

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