Migration, immigration and boundaries

What do you think of, when you see migrants in the news?

Are birds different?

Twitter just isn’t the same any more, is it? I have really enjoyed being on Twitter for the last several years. It’s like having a really big coffee-lounge, where you have a choice between sitting quietly and listening to the conversations around you – maybe joining in if the craic is good – or walking in wearing your heart on your sleeve and seeing who comes to say hi. Well, it *was*. Now… well, now it looks like the coffee-lounge in 2020. Dust-bunnies. Your choice of chairs. Lots of quiet, except for the automated shouting of the empty-voiced spambots and adverts. Oh, and a lot of hate.

A lot of that hate seems – in my personal Twitterverse – to be aimed at refugees. Often by the State – who (we assume) are targeting this vulnerable group of strangers for some reason of theirs or ours; but it has me angry and thinking. Mostly about a) why we are being pushed to blame the ills of the country on refugees and migrants, despite all the accumulated evidence that they are GOOD for a country ; and b) why it seems to be so *easy* to trigger hate for vulnerable people who cross country boundaries. Oh, and alongside that, what I actually find when I look here, in my own head and heart. I’ve said it before, but there’s a lot of thinking time in stained glass, especially if you have a penchant for making pieces with a hundred-and-umpteen individual bits to foil.

Birders, pretty much by definition, live in a world that acknowledges, celebrates and revels in migration.

Lets unpick that for a moment. Birds don’t see our human boundaries, and they live in a world shaped by climate, by food resources, and by the unimaginably slow but globally catastrophic processes of plate tectonics. These things – hunger, temperature, geography – these have given us a world in which the Arctic Tern breeds in northern Europe and winters off South Africa and Australia; where geese from Greenland winter in Ireland and Wales where the seas are warm and the fields green in January. And our warm seas and huge tides (the UK has globally-notable tidal amplitude and hence big intertidal food resources) bring wading birds from a huge sweep of Eurasia and the Arctic, to feed on our coastal mud and marshes. And we don’t think of these species as ‘foreign’, we don’t chase them away from ‘our’ resources, we welcome them and they tell us where in the year we stand.

And more than that – we wait and hope for them. Take Waxwings, for example. Every autumn, thousands – hundreds of thousands – of these quiet, pinkish birds, decorated like little Christmas trees with baubles of vivid yellow and scarlet, migrate gently west and south as their breeding grounds in the far north of Europe turn chilly. In a year with a poor northerly berry crop, this movement is at its most extreme – and if we are really lucky, and Europe really cold, sometimes the UK will experience a ‘Waxwing winter’ when HUGE numbers of these gorgeous little birds hop the North Sea to find extra food and mild temperatures. Social media fills with images of urban Rowans sprouting crops of pink visitors; photos of balancing birds flicking bright berries into their lipsticked mouths and expensive optics staking out the back car-parks of Halfords or B&Q. The westerly coasts watch this painted tide flow on BirdTrack and eBird, and hope that *this* year perhaps they will make it as far as the local patch…

And the true refugees, the storm-blown wanderers, the climate-driven colonisers – those we drive hundreds of miles to meet. How many people visited Norfolk for the 2022 breeding Bee-eaters, or read their story on BBC news, or watched the live feed from RSPB? How many twitchers head for the Western Isles after another Atlantic storm? These poor lost foreigners, we wait and hope and search for their landings on our shores, we hover over them as they sleep or try to make a life on this strange landscape, where no-one speaks their language and the very stars are strange.

How different it is, if the traveller has feathers. How different, the bee-eaters on the news, and the Somalian or Syrian or Ukrainian refugees in small boats, taxis, trains. How insurmountable, the paper barriers, the language and religious and social barriers. How cold, the welcome. And the more I think about this stark difference, the less I understand it. I cannot make myself hate refugees, whether feathered or jacketed, wearing blankets or stealing berries in a car park. I cannot understand how a species built on migration, evolved under African skies, seafaring and foot-wandering, holidaying overseas as often as not, sees only the stranger and not the welcome migrant.