WHEN people find out that St Nicholas’s, Leicester, is, quite possibly, the only church with an Ornithologist in Residence in the UK, they generally ask: “Do you have some particularly special birds?” And they are somewhat confused when the answer is “No.”
Aside from the peregrines that nest on the cathedral near by, the birds around St Nicholas’s are pigeons, blackbirds, crows, and the odd finch or blue tit. Sometimes we might get a robin. There is little here that would summon an avid birdwatcher, much less one of the world’s premier ornithologists.
And yet this little church in the middle of a city centre boasts as its Ornithologist in Residence Dr Alex Bond, principal curator and curator-in-charge of birds at the Natural History Museum.
In his day job, Alex is responsible for the world’s largest collection of ornithological specimens, numbering more than a million pickled, stuffed, and skeletonised birds, as well as eggs and nests covering almost every species known to science.
When he’s not in the lab, he’s in the field, traversing often unpopulated and difficult terrain to reach islands around the world, walking on solidified lava flows that no other human has stepped upon, and hiking along the tops of sheer cliffs.
ALEX goes to these places because he specialises in seabirds, and the impact of ocean plastic. As a lead researcher at the Adrift Lab, every year he travels to Lord Howe Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, 430 miles off the east coast of Australia. There, he joins colleagues from around the world, walking the beaches and collecting dead and dying flesh-footed shearwater chicks.
Alex BondDead flesh-footed shearwater chicks
Their primary flight feathers are only beginning to show, and yet their stomachs are already packed to rigidity with ocean plastic. Sometimes, one or two can be saved. Most cannot.
The chicks are dissected after death, and the plastic is removed and counted. “I spend my life making birds vomit bottle caps and plastic toys,” Alex says. Among the shards, some chunks are so large and recognisable that you can still see brand names stamped on them.
The most plastic that he has ever found in a chick was 276 pieces, weighing 64g (about ten per cent of its body mass); but every bird is affected. “From shards in their stomachs, to microplastics in their blood, every bird on earth likely contains plastics.
“It’s everywhere. Plastics have been found on the top of Mount Everest and the bottom of the Mariana Trench,” he says. “And it’s not a new problem. The first scientific paper on birds dying of plastic ingestion was published in the 1960s.”
It is also a problem that isn’t going away any time soon. With twice as much plastic on earth by weight than there is animal life, our current attempts at reducing plastic aren’t enough. “In the current best-case scenario, if we did everything that’s being seriously proposed to reduce plastic pollution, plastics in the ocean will still increase until at least 2050.
“And plastic never goes away. People think it breaks down, but it just breaks up, into smaller and smaller pieces. That means that every piece of plastic that has ever been created, unless it has been burned, still exists somewhere in the world today.”
WHAT does all of this have to do with a small church in Leicester? Alex is also the co-chair of LGBTQ+ STEM, an organisation promoting and supporting queer scientists. “Science is not neutral,” Alex says. “What we discover depends on what we study, and how we study it — and that comes down to the scientist who is making those calls. Who our scientists are impacts the science they conduct.”
He encountered St Nicholas’s, as it is a particularly LGBTQ+-inclusive church, and, though he is an atheist, he was fascinated by the work that the church does. “It echoes what I do with LGBTQ+ STEM, but in an entirely different context. It’s energising to be around such an incredibly compassionate and inclusive group of people, especially ones who are so open to having these discussions.”
Alex BondPlastic retrieved from a bird’s stomach
He was also fascinated by the building. The present church was consecrated in 879, and retains almost all of the original pre-conquest nave and crossing tower. This makes it one of the oldest churches in the UK.
“It’s amazing to think what St Nick’s has seen over the past 1143 years in terms of environmental change — whether that’s the huge rise in greenhouse gasses, the invention of plastic, or just how the wider environment has changed over millennia.
“Being able to put more recent environmental challenges in the context of a place, that . . . has also been created by humans, but that has been in existence for such an incredibly long amount of time, helps us all to think about our impact on the natural world.”
When Alex asked whether we’d be interested in having an Ornithologist in Residence, there was no question about it, even though we knew that we had no rare birds.
Little did we know how much Alex would bring to us as a church. Alex visits regularly, to be with us for such occasions as Easter, Pentecost, and our curate’s ordination to the priesthood. On every occasion, he spends time with us as a community, attending services, giving talks, and simply chatting with members of the congregation.
Sometimes, those conversations are about birds, plastic, and faith; sometimes, they are about what people did at the weekend. He has become part of the community.
Having Alex among us enables us all to think more clearly about our obligations towards the natural world. The Church of England’s drive to protect creation gains a higher sense of urgency when you are standing in front of the altar, hands full of shards of plastic that were once inside the stomach of a bird.
Thanks to Alex, we’ve massively reduced our plastic use at St Nicholas’s, and are looking at adding bird boxes for the birds that we do have — after all, churchyards are havens of biodiversity in cities.
ALEX also enables us to look anew at aspects of our faith which we often take for granted. One example of this is the Holy Spirit descending as a dove. After his visit at Pentecost, Alex searched the Natural History Museum’s collection, pulling out not just the rock doves, but the subspecies that live in the Holy Land, Columba livia palaestinae, from the Jordan Valley. This is as close as you can humanly come, in 21st-century England, to the peristera, the bird as which the Holy Spirit descended.
Alex BondDr Alex Bond with a sooty albatross
Also as part of his residency, he has begun exploring the records and natural-history collections of various churches. Many churches don’t know what they have, or what to do with it — and he wants to help.
Museums have well-established networks of curators who support one another, answer queries, and offer advice, and he wants to extend that offer to any church that needs it. He says: “Churches are in many ways living archives, and the first step to ensuring any collection . . . is around for another 50, 100, or 500 years is knowing what it contains and what condition it’s in.
“As part of my residency at St Nicholas’s, I’d like to hear about any bird or mammal specimens — skins, taxidermy, eggs, nests, skeletons, anything — from any UK place of worship, learn about their history and significance, and offer any advice as to their care that might be needed. Items don’t need to be the fanciest or the rarest: if they’re important to someone, they’re worth preserving.”
Jay Hulme is assistant churchwarden at St Nicholas’s, Leicester. Dr Alex Bond can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.