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Birds Expertise

by Mr Peter John Robinson
Consultant Ornithologist & Courtroom Bird Expert
(More about Mr Robinson)

Confusion reigns over what we mean by the term ornithologist. Though most understand it involves birds, the situation is not helped by the media routinely describing anyone connected with birds as an ‘expert’. And academic status is not a reliable guide as like elsewhere; experience does not necessarily follow academic qualification.

Legislation controlling actions involving both wild and captive birds is complex and full of pitfalls for the unwary. The main UK statute now says different things in England, Scotland and Wales. And whilst the EU has tried standardising legislation, the reality is very different. Overlaying all this complexity are UK and EU controls aimed at enforcing international trade for globally threatened species, and further similarly challenging rules about welfare controls on captive birds.

Role of a bird expert

The most likely reason solicitors require a bird expert is in relation to criminal proceedings. Such cases involve:

  • captive birds
  • taking or possessing wild birds or eggs
  • killing wild birds
  • sale/exchange of birds or eggs
  • disturbance of rare birds.

Issues can also arise over legal activities, e.g. taxidermy, falconry and game management.

Bird person terminology

Descriptive terms for people with a knowledge of birds include Bird Watcher, Birder, Bird Fancier, Bird Lover, Bird Breeder, Bird Keeper and, of course, Ornithologist, all of whom may consider themselves expert.

Bird Watcher and Birder are terms that bring under their wing a substantial proportion of the ‘bird expert’ population. Many of these people will be members of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) or of local bird clubs. Most could competently identify live or dead birds, but would be less capable with skins, eggs, etc. Very few would have any courtroom experience, and their ability to assist with law and regulatory processes will be limited.

Bird Breeders and Bird Fanciers tend to limit their interests to captive birds, with a subset keeping just UK native birds. Four groups are recognised:

  • keeping birds purely for pleasure
  • keeping birds for breeding
  • keeping birds for competitive exhibiting, and
  • keeping birds for commercial trading.

As with bird watchers, some of these people may be able to assist with litigation. But for most, their experience is limited. Be warned, too, that many bird keepers remain heavily reliant upon tradition and custom, with far less regard for science. Indeed, many bird-related cases coming before UK courts will involve this category of person as a defendant!

Ornithologist is a term that tends to describe people working professionally or semi-professionally in the fields of zoology or ecology. They are often well qualified in their own specialist subjects. However, very few of these people will have any practical (or even theoretical) experience of criminal evidential issues.

Key issues

Questions that can arise about birds are extensive and varied, but tend to fall under the following broad categories:

  • Captive Birds, e.g. What species – hybrid/mule – captive-bred or wild origin? What is wild/captive behaviour? Can it be sold? Should it be ringed? Has the ring been legally or illegally fitted? Is its sale/possession covered by UK or other European legislation? If so, what legislation? Are there any open general licenses/registration? Is the cage/container legally acceptable or physically fit? Could the bird have been illegally imported into the UK/Europe? What is its conservation status? What is its UK/world trade status? What can the traps be used for?
  • Wild Birds and Taxidermy, e.g. What species? How did it die? Where in the UK/Europe does it occur naturally? What is its UK/European conservation status? How or when can it be caught? What habitat does it occupy? Are there lead shot traces on the feathering? Is accompanying data acceptable/plausible? Can it be sold? How reliabile are the records? What legislation applies?
  • Birds’ Eggs, e.g. What species are the eggs from? Could there be any possible confusion between species? Could the eggs have come from outside the UK/Europe? Were they collected pre- or post-1982? Are there acceptable written data? Can they be sold/exchanged? Is the defendant’s explanation acceptable/plausible? How relevant are marked maps, dairies, paperwork, climbing equipment, etc.? What legislation applies?

Main legislation

  • Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 (now English, Scottish and Welsh versions)
  • Wildlife & Countryside (Registration and Ringing of Certain Captive Birds) Regulations – (Various)
  • Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 (Variation of Schedules) Order – (Various)
  • Open General Licences – (Various)
  • Control of Trade in Endangered Species (Enforcement) Regulations 1997
  • Protection of Animals Act 1911

The expert

Only a handful of people in the UK have professional enforcement experience in this kind of work combined with the practical experience of relevant legislation and courtroom procedures in England, Scotland and Wales. To gauge the ability of your expert you should ask:

  • Do you have practical experience of wild bird populations and in which countries?
  • Have you worked with captive birds, either commercially or privately?
  • Have you hands-on bird experience, e.g. are you a qualified bird ringer?
  • Have you hands-on experience of birds’ eggs, skins, etc?
  • How well read are you in current environmental issues?
  • With which previous cases have you been involved?

There are few professional qualifications to look for in a bird expert. The key to ability will rest largely upon levels of experience. Former professional appointments or memberships of professional bodies, e.g. Institute of Professional Investigators, may also help.

by Mr Peter John Robinson
Consultant Ornithologist & Courtroom Bird Expert
(More about Mr Robinson)


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