The tropical bird that shows the climate crisis is coming for Manchester

It has been described as "the 21st-century equivalent of a canary in a coal mine".
Jennifer Sizeland

Manchester is jokingly referred to as “Rainchester,” but even though heatwaves aren’t currently as strong in its boroughs as elsewhere, there has been an unsuspecting signifier of climate change – a tropical bird. The multi-coloured European bee-eater is a bird that is usually at home in North Africa and the Mediterranean, yet it has made its way to Manchester.    

As an avid birdwatcher, it is a species I’ve seen several times before in the much warmer climes of Sri Lanka and India. This vivid memory of them in lush vegetation made it hard to believe when a pair of bee-eaters successfully bred in a Norfolk quarry in 2021, returning the next year to try again.    

Just two years later, a bee-eater arrived at Elton Reservoir in Bury. As this is an area regularly patrolled by avid birders like me, it was excitedly photographed and recorded. This discovery was all the more shocking to me as it was so close to my home. I didn’t go and see it because I’m painfully aware of what it represents. Climate change is coming for the North.

The northern shore of Elton Reservoir in Bury. Image: cc-by-sa/2.0 - © David Dixon -

That same year, two bee-eaters tried to nest in a Greater Manchester location that was kept secret in case of disturbance. Though the nest failed, one birder described it as “the 21st-century equivalent of a canary in a coal mine,” in terms of climate.

It’s not the only bird from afar that regularly frequents our shores. Various types of egret, glossy ibis and black-winged stilts are cropping up around the country. So much so that finding an egret has become barely noteworthy. I spot them so often that I forget that they were a rare visitor until relatively recently.

While the bee-eater may be beautiful and exotic, it's a sure sign that the birds that need colder conditions are being pushed out. The ptarmigan is one such creature that could be affected, as it turns white in the winter to be camouflaged in the snow. As it has no choice over turning white, it is vulnerable without snow to hide from predators, which could be contributing to the speed at which it has become critically endangered. Since 1961, there has been a decline of 81% in their numbers.

Ptarmigans are being pushed out as a result of climate breakdown. Image: Flickr.

As many birds migrate, it may be safe to assume that they can leave a location if it doesn’t prove to be fruitful for them. But it isn’t quite as simple as that, because timing is everything for these feathered creatures. They need to arrive at their destination at the same time as their food is available, which could be a certain type of berry or insect. If they get it wrong, it has serious consequences as there may not be enough resources for them to breed or even survive.

It’s an issue close to home. I know firsthand that there is a deep passion for birdlife and conservation in Manchester as I’ve lived and worked in the city and its boroughs for 19 years. However, the pressure for housing means that it is a struggle for the government and the authorities to make a real commitment to nature by protecting areas or rewilding. It is also despite the lockdowns, demonstrating the profound need for green spaces for everyone.

The irony is that Elton Reservoir, where the bee-eater (as well as an incredibly diverse range of other rare and migratory birds) was discovered, has been earmarked for 3,500 new homes which would use the majority of its green belt land.

Places for Everyone will see hundreds of hectares of green belt released for development. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

After several iterations of rejected proposals, the development has been approved under the Government’s Places for Everyone plan. This is the strategy to build new housing in nine of the Greater Manchester districts - Bolton, Bury, Manchester, Oldham, Rochdale, Salford, Tameside, Trafford and Wigan.

Those who advocate for building on green belt land claim that some of it isn’t in fact green, but land of low environmental value such as scrubland or car parks. This is how Labour leader Keir Starmer has attempted to rebrand the green belt as ‘grey belt’.

But Elton Reservoir is ecologically precious. In 2008 alone, 141 species of birds were recorded there. The UK is already one of the most nature-depleted countries on the planet. Given we have enough brownfield land to build 1.2 million homes and more than a million homes in England currently stand empty, the notion that we should lose more wildlife by releasing pieces of green belt land like Elton Reservoir seems untenable.

What’s more, the creatures that do still live here don’t have enough places to breed, eat, or simply to exist. New housing is built to be energy-efficient to help cut household energy bills and reduce greenhouse gas emissions but provides fewer nesting opportunities for birds. When all of this is combined with the spectre of climate change, it paints a grim picture for nature.

New housing provides fewer nesting opportunities for birds than older homes. Image: Flickr.

While the recent heatwaves have certainly been felt in Manchester, they aren’t as hot as in the South of England. Throughout the year, it is usually so cold and wet that it is hard to imagine the global boiling and dry conditions that are happening in other regions despite the North’s flooding and hot weather.

The UK’s inaction on the environment does raise questions about what the city and its boroughs are going to do about climate change, which requires robust policies and investment to look after the people and wildlife that live here. As councils around the country are struggling, it is a thorny issue, especially as Bury Council in North Manchester is one of the lowest-funded in England. However, they are all required to strategise when it comes to the climate, regardless of their cash-strapped status.

At the Greater Manchester Green Summit in 2019, a “Five-Year Environment Plan,” was put forward by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), with a wider aim to be carbon neutral by 2038. This aim for climate resilience includes a circular economy with zero waste, locally produced renewable energy, cleaner water and air, access to green space for all, and sustainable public transport amongst other pledges. Two of the policies designed to achieve this urban utopia are the GMCA’s controversial “Clean Air Zone” and its “Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Strategy.”

Manchester City Council aims to be zero carbon by 2038. Image: Unsplash.

Manchester City Council as an organisation also aims to be zero carbon by 2038, and it is putting £289 million towards green projects like retrofitting social homes. There is also a local strategy to recover nature after Mayor Andy Burnham declared a biodiversity emergency back in 2022. So far it has seen the creation of a new reserve, park, green wall and viaduct garden. The Wigan and Leigh Flashes are a national reserve that protects 738.21 hectares of wetlands for endangered creatures like willow tits, newts and water voles. Mayfield Park is 2.6 hectares and has already attracted urban wildlife like birds, squirrels and foxes.

I know from discussions with older wildlife watchers that birds were much more abundant when they started, and we know from records that previous generations would say the same. As someone who was born as the trajectory continued its spiral downward, I’ve never seen any type of creature in high numbers, except for humans. So now I believe that every bird counts.

That’s why we need to do everything we can to make a place for wildlife in our cities and boroughs. There are ways that we can all help to conserve our vital bird species, the main one being planting native species to attract insects and pollinators which will help both bugs and birds. To provide breeding areas, attach nest boxes to houses or sheds if there are no mature trees available. You can also leave out dead wood, twigs, feathers and other natural materials that birds can use to build nests or create a compost heap to feed the insects, snails and earthworms that birds eat. Another vital act is to pick up litter as it kills wildlife, especially once it gets to the sea.

As a nation of self-proclaimed animal lovers, it is up to us to rewild and restore what we can. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

If you’re more politically minded, you could join a group like the Climate Coalition, the biggest of its kind in the UK for people and businesses. You can also get involved in citizen science like the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch where you send in your bird sightings to aid wildlife research. Outside of the birdwatch, you can record your species lists on Ebird. There are also campaigns to help birds like the ‘swift brick’ campaign which calls for mandatory ‘swift bricks’ to allow these threatened birds to nest in new buildings. Other ways to advocate for wildlife are by signing petitions, writing to your MP, and being the voice that nature desperately needs.

As a nation of self-proclaimed animal lovers, it is up to us to rewild and restore what we can as it's not just the creatures that live in our homes that deserve our love and attention. The more wildlife we can preserve, the greater the genetic diversity and spread which will help keep species resilient in the tough years to come.

Jennifer Sizeland is a freelance writer and assistant producer with 13 years of experience in the media industry.

Feature image: Unsplash.

Jennifer Sizeland

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