When I was a child, we would go on family outings to see birds, so it’s something which has been with me my whole life. Some of my fondest memories of childhood were family outings to bird sanctuaries, wetland centres, and the local reservoir, where there were a lot of water birds. Standing there, seeing if we could spot a great crested-grebe, to me that seems synonymous with childhood.
We have an amazingly diverse array of species for these small isles. A lot of the more spectacular birds, like white-tailed eagles, or golden eagles, are limited to certain parts of Britain, therefore they do require a bit of effort to try and see. But purely because you can enjoy them on a day-to-day basis, I really appreciate the more common or garden birds. The wren is amazingly widespread throughout Britain, it’s a very hardy little bird. A goldcrest is a beautiful little gem, but how many people can say they’ve seen them, unless they’re birders? It’s not the sort of bird you would see in your back garden unless you’re lucky. It’s the kind of thing that you’d have to make an effort to see. But there are millions of them!
In my shows I ask people if there’s any birders in and there’s always a healthy number. Maybe that’s because my audience crosses over with that demographic, but I don’t think so. The British generally have an enormous affection for wildlife – just look at the popularity of wildlife programmes. Bird fairs have more people every year.
One of the reasons for writing the book was that I wanted there to be the opportunity for anyone who’s not even remotely interested in birds, but who can look out of their office window or their home and see a bird, to see it in this book. There will be facts about it, a story about it, my encounters with it, a sketch, something to bring it to life. It’s a fascinating world and you can only access it when you start to observe, are able to acknowledge and name the birds. It’s not hard, it just takes a little bit of effort, and once you start being able to identify birds, it’s amazingly compulsive! You can see why people get into it.
“Somehow the aesthetic beauty, the joy of seeing birds, is diminished by the idea of just collecting them as another species on the list”
The title ‘twitcher’ actually puts people off, because it’s reducing birds down to just ticking them off a list. I can understand people who are collectors, it’s like anything you’re collecting, you get a little bit obsessed by it. But somehow the aesthetic beauty, the joy of seeing them, is diminished by the idea of just collecting them as another species on the list. I include in the book birds which ‘twitchers’ will just dismiss; they’re not interested in the common or garden bird. They’re interested in the exotics, the rarities, the strange migrants that blow in through some combination of being lost or [caught up in] a storm. To me, that’s not really what my relationship with birds is; it’s on a day-to-day level. It’s a daily enjoyment, whether it’s hearing goldfinches sing in the garden, or watching robins, occasionally a jay, or green finches. That has a kind of restorative quality which I love.
We’ve created our own little sanctuary at home. They’re all rescue cases, they’re all birds that are either handed to us or were taken on from sanctuaries. We take in injured birds, or those whose owners have died or where sanctuaries or private collections have been broken up and the birds can’t be housed in zoos. A lot of zoos have a really rigorous admissions policy, they need to know the bird’s genetic line before they can introduce them. So these birds are either destroyed or they get put in pet shops. It’s totally unsuitable. So we take them on. It’s not just birds, we take on all sorts of things, ducks, chickens, a snake, rabbits – I’ve lost count! There’s a lot of species, fur, feathers, scales, all manner of stuff.
There are a few projects which I’ve been really proud of, and projects that have really had a resonance with an audience. The documentary about Alfred Russel Wallace was very much about my own interest in travelling in Indonesia and following in his footsteps. But it became a piece about the natural world, about natural history, combined with the history of exploration in the 19th century and how that continues on today. It was partly because I’ve travelled to a lot of the places that he travelled to in Indonesia, and I discovered that years ago there was an area there called Wallacea, named after Wallace, and it’s huge! How come there’s this vast swathe of Indonesia named after this bloke, this guy who was an amateur explorer and naturalist? I became fascinated with his story, read The Malay Archipelago again, and thought there must be a documentary about him, and there wasn’t. That’s really what prompted it.
1965 Born in Somerset
1996 Nominated for an Edinburgh Perrier Comedy Award for the solo show Bill Bailey’s Cosmic Jam
2006 Hosted Wild Thing I Love You on Channel 4, a documentary about protecting Britain’s wildlife
2010 Hosted Bill Bailey’s Birdwatching Bonanza on Sky 1; Had a species of pitcher plant named after him, the Nepenthes Bill Bailey, in recognition of his conservation work
2011 Hosted Baboons With Bill Bailey on ITV, following the lives of urban South African baboons
2013 Hosted Bill Bailey’s Jungle Hero on BBC Two, a documentary about explorer Alfred Russel Wallace
This was published in the December 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.