Colin Bibby
Ornithologist and authority on bird censusing techniques


Monday, 16 August 2004  Web

Colin Bibby was one of Britain's most influential and multi-skilled ornithologists. A senior administrator with the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) and BirdLife International, he contributed much to the understanding of birds and the problems they face.

Colin Joseph Bibby, ornithologist and conservationist: born 20 November 1948; research staff, RSPB 1971-86, Head of Conservation Science 1986-91; Director of Science and Policy, BirdLife International 1991-2001; married (three sons); died Cambridge 7 August 2004.

Colin Bibby was one of Britain's most influential and multi-skilled ornithologists. A senior administrator with the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) and BirdLife International, he contributed much to the understanding of birds and the problems they face.

Independent-minded and unwilling to accept conventional wisdoms without questioning their validity, he helped to place the work of the RSPB on a much firmer scientific footing. He was ahead of his time in developing action plans for rare species, and became a recognised authority on bird censusing techniques. In June he received the RSPB medal for his contributions to bird conservation worldwide.

Bibby's first job when he joined the research staff of the RSPB in 1971 was to take charge of the Beached Bird Survey, in which volunteers combed the coast recording the washed-up corpses of sea-birds. Characteristically, Bibby not only collated and analysed the records as required, but asked himself how far the bodies had travelled. He took to travelling on cross-Channel ferries and quietly tipping ring-tagged bird corpses overboard. The rings were subsequently recovered from as far away as North Africa, indicating that sea-birds can meet their death hundreds of miles from the places where their bodies are found.

He also asked himself how birds sustained themselves during their long migration journeys. By studying the birds in their stop-over areas - the places where birds feed and refuel for the next stage in their journey - he and his Cambridge colleague Rees Green shed light on one of the great mysteries of the bird world. The solution of the pied flycatcher, he found, was to set up temporary territories and fight off rival birds. The strongest, most aggressive birds were the winners. Sedge warblers, on the other hand, were precariously dependent on a particular kind of aphid. When the aphid was plentiful, the birds fattened quickly. When not, they lost condition. Today, influenced by such findings, many zoologists are now working on what has become known as "stop-over ecology".

Colin Bibby was born on the Wirral in Cheshire in 1948. A keen field naturalist from boyhood, he was educated at Oundle School, and went on to study Natural Sciences at Cambridge. Aged 20, he undertook a now classic study of the Dartford warbler, "The Ecology and Conservation of the Dartford Warbler". His work, for which he obtained a PhD, looked carefully at the status and habitat needs of the bird, and translated them into a plan for its conservation.

He showed that Dartford warblers are dependent on dry, open heathland, and need the right management to thrive. Later Bibby extended this work to merlins, finding that they too were commonest on well-managed heather moors, and declined when these were over-grazed.

In 1986, Bibby was promoted to become the RSPB's Head of Conservation Science. Among other things he oversaw the production of the first UK Red Data Book for birds (Red Data Birds in Britain: action for rare, threatened and important species, 1990). This summarised the current populations of 117 rare or rapidly declining species, along with details of their known ecology, the threats they face, legal protection and conservation measures in force. He also extended bird censusing projects, introducing the annual bird counts now used by government among its "quality of life" indicators of sustainability. He was co-author of Bird Census Techniques (1992) which has set a new standard for good quality, well-designed survey and monitoring work worldwide.

In 1991, Bibby left the RSPB to head a small research team at BirdLife International, a body which works with partner organisations in over 70 countries around the world. One of the projects he took over was a major work, Putting Biodiversity on the Map (1992), on the distribution of endemic birds, which showed that 80 per cent of the world's birds lived on less than 20 per cent of the world's surface - and that the true biodiversity hotspots were smaller still. This and related work on bird biodiversity led to the award of the Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences to Bibby in 1994.

Bibby was fascinated by island birds, especially apparently "lame duck" species, like the bizarre flightless kagu of New Caledonia or the lonely Azores bullfinch. He made three visits to the Azores in pursuit of its mysterious bullfinch, but his interest in the principles of island biogeography was also brought to bear on his studies of reedbed birds back at home. Bibby showed that, as with islands, the bigger the reedbed, the more species they support. This is the reason why the RSPB is now developing large reedbeds in the Fens and elsewhere.

Colin Bibby was a tall man with a slightly donnish air, relieved by a friendly twinkle; he had, it is said, "an enthusiasm for enthusiasts". He was that useful colleague, an intellectual with a practical bent. He had a certain presence, characteristically leaning backwards slightly and with his eyes focused somewhere above head level - the legacy perhaps of countless hours behind binoculars. He was a good public speaker and a clear and interesting writer, with over 50 papers in refereed journals.

Bibby left BirdLife International in 2001 to use his experience to help conservation bodies and international companies develop strategies for biodiversity.

Peter Marren

Colin Bibby
Defending birds round the world
Brian Unwin
The Guardian,
Thursday August 26 2004

Dr Colin Bibby, who has died of cancer aged 55, became the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds' head of conservation science. Bibby ensured that priority-setting and decision-making were placed on a firmer scientific footing - and he set the international standards for the survey and monitoring of wildlife and habitats. And it was Bibby who oversaw the first production of the United Kingdom Red Data Book, which keeps conservationists in touch with the state of under-threat bird populations.
Current government use of annual bird counts as indicators of the state of the environment partly stemmed from Bibby's efforts. For Bibby science was always at the heart of conservation strategies.

Bibby had joined the RSPB in 1971 and had helped set up the Beached Bird Survey, a nationwide shoreline watch on marine pollution. Britain's Dartford warbler population was down to just 12 pairs after the severe 1962-63 winter. The fact there has been a 100-fold increase is partly due to recent mild weather but also a result of better management of their lowland heath habitat following Bibby's research.

In 1992, his influence went worldwide - he became the International Council for Bird Preservation's research director, aiding its transformation into BirdLife International, and playing a major role in its strategy and regional programmes.

Researchers, fired by his inspiration, studied threatened wildlife and habitat in more than 70 countries. He globalised BirdLife's bird area programme, established a world bird database and helped to develop plans for extremely endangered species.

With Cambridge University's Dr Rhys Green, he pioneered studies of migratory birds at staging areas - crucial locations providing vital feeding, in effect refuelling before the next stages of their journeys. Hundreds of researchers now work on "stopover ecology".

Born in the Wirral, Cheshire, Bibby was the son of a North Wales farmer. He was educated at Oundle school in Northamptonshire. Fascinated by biology, he graduated in natural sciences from St John's College, Cambridge. Then came the RSPB.

He left BirdLife in 2001, and devoted his time to helping conservation organisations and international companies to develop their strategic thinking for biodiversity conservation. Bibby could grip conference audiences from Burundi in Africa to Beijing in China, where he addressed the 2002 International Ornithological Congress.

Dr Mike Rands, BirdLife's chief executive, remembers Bibby's analytical approach, phenomenal - and sometimes intimidating - intellect and his great storytelling, "especially over a pint of beer on a summer evening, when he exhibited a wonderful sense of humour".

Bibby could be brusque. Heading a study of merlins, small, normally ground-nesting, birds of prey in Wales, he was phoned by a team member reporting a nest in a tree. "I don't believe you," he snorted. "If that's a merlin's nest, I'll eat my hat."

On his next visit to the site, Bibby saw that the caller was correct. That night the full team sat down for dinner, and a hat, on a silver salver, was placed in front of him. He bit off a section, chewed, and swallowed it.

As well as 50 scientific papers, he co-authored/edited three books: Bird Census Techniques (1992); Bird Surveys: Expedition Field Techniques (1998); and the Conservation Project Manual (2003). He also contributed to Conserving Bird Biodiversity (2002).

In 1994 he received the Dr AH Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences, on behalf of BirdLife, in recognition of its pioneering research. Two months ago, he was awarded the prestigious RSPB Medal to mark his contribution to ornithology.

He is survived by his wife, Ruth, a medical doctor, and their three sons.

Colin Joseph Bibby, ornithologist, born November 20 1948; died August 7 2004