Radical lessons from bird watchers

Is the long-tailed tit an anarcho-communist? Tom Whyman draws inspiration from some of nature’s natural co-operators.

In a drizzly park on an overcast day in Newcastle, a small group huddles around Matthew See as he gives a lecture about birds.

‘Can you hear that?’ See asks, pointing towards the source of a faint chirruping from the trees.

It’s the sound of long-tailed tits: a one-species rebuke to the principles of a world governed by ruthless Darwinism. Long-tailed tits are tiny and not at all fearsome. But they are hugely sociable –constantly flitting from tree to tree in a ‘noisy, joyful procession’. They cluster close to reduce their collective surface area for warmth, and if a parent bird’s young die, that bird will help one of its neighbours to raise theirs instead. This makes long-tailed tits the perfect demonstration, See tells us, of the Russian anarcho-communist Pyotr Kropotkin’s principle of ‘mutual aid’.

These birds are just one of the species that star in Reclaim the Hides, a ‘radical bird-watching tour’ that See runs in cities across the UK. Bird-watching has long been the preserve of a certain beardy conservatism – but look to the sky and you can learn all sorts of radical lessons.

See gets us to look at robins, blackbirds and wrens – solitary birds who nevertheless work across species lines to defend their territory. He tells us about swifts, tireless border-flouting migrants who spend their lives on the wing. And he warns us about the fate of the hen harrier, displaced from its moorland habitat by wealthy landowners who want to preserve their wilderness for grouse shooting.

‘The same people,’ See tell us, ‘who govern our land and write our laws also write our history.’ It is in their interests that we see nature as a site of competition, not co-operation. The point of Reclaim the Hides is to help us see it differently.