CPRE Norfolk chairman James Parry explores the Mating Lives of Birds in new book

The extraordinary breeding behaviour of the world's diverse bird life is explored in a new book by one of the key voices in Norfolk's conservation community.

The Mating Lives of Birds is a colourful 160-page hardback illustrating the entire life-cycle of birds, through territorial contests, courtship rituals, nest-making, and the rearing of young – all geared towards the single purpose of continuing their species.

It was written by James Parry, the Norfolk chairman of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), who travelled the globe to indulge his love of bird-watching while researching the book.

He studied differing avian lifestyle choices including monogamy, polygamy and promiscuity, and his book explains the importance of plumage, song and dancing displays in achieving the over-riding life goal attracting a mate.

Mr Parry said: 'I have always found the diversity of bird life bewildering. There are so many different ways that birds will display and exhibit themselves to the opposite sex.

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'The most important thing for any bird is to pass on its genes, so everything they do in a particular cycle is geared towards reproduction, from the establishment of a territory to attract a mate, right through to the fledging of their young from the nest.'

One of Norfolk's examples of elaborate mating behaviour can be seen at reserves like Titchwell and Holkham where little egrets develop extravagant plumes of feathers in spring to embellish their chances of success in the mating season.

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But Mr Parry said the consequences of failure were recently displayed outside his home at Oxborough, near Swaffham.

He said: 'There was a yellowhammer singing like crazy from the fence posts and one of my friends remarked that its singing was so beautiful, but actually it was so sad because here was an unmated bird which was desperate because it had not been able to do its bit for the future yellowhammer clan.'

Although Mr Parry has written several natural history books, this is his first to focus on the passion which began as a child during his family holidays in Wales.

'It is the book I always wanted to write,' he said. 'I have been bird-watching since I was about 10, and so often you find them doing something extraordinary through their courtship displays, and they become so focused on what they are doing that their natural suspicion of humans dissipates, so you can get very close to them at that point.

'It made me think that the drive to reproduce must be a very powerful thing if a normally shy bird is prepared to set aside its normal behaviour.'

The author travelled to the rainforest in Ecuador to see exotic hoatzins, to Lake Bogoria in Kenya to see dancing flamingos and to eastern Europe to watch courting cranes.

In Slovakia, he saw returning white storks – the mythical symbol of human reproduction, often depicted carrying babies to new mothers.

'The interesting thing about storks is that bird folklore tells us they mate for life,' said Mr Parry. 'They represent monogamy and that's probably why we have this myth of storks bearing babies. But although storks come back every year to the same nest site, it is not necessarily the same pair. So it seems their fidelity is not always to each other, but to the place they spend the spring and summer.

'But when they do come back there is this extraordinary display of bill-clapping and it is hard not to see that as a celebration of being back together, and the excitement that they could have another family. But it could just as easily be: 'Hello, here's another person with the right genes, so let's try it with you'.'

-Mr Parry will be giving a short talk and signing copies of his book at Ceres Bookshop, London St, Swaffham on Thursday 6 September 6-8pm. The event is free, but booking is advisable. Call 01760 722504 for more information.

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