British Ornithologists' Union Medal


  • John Allan

The BOU has awarded its Union Medal to Chris Feare in recognition of his outstanding contribution to ornithology and to the Union.

Chris began what became a lifetime’s work in ornithology at Leeds University, where he gained first class honours in Zoology before going on to study the population dynamics of dog-whelks Nucella lapillus at the University’s marine research station at Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire. Chris’s lifelong fondness for birds won out over marine biology and he moved to a post as a research fellow at Aberdeen University studying the feeding ecology of Rooks Corvus frugilegus in relation to agricultural damage. It was at this point that the themes that would continue through Chris’s professional career began to emerge: a desire to develop practical solutions to real world problems involving birds, and a fondness for Sooty Terns Sterna fuscata. It is, perhaps, understandable that 6 years spent researching birds in the fields of North East Scotland should also inspire an interest in a species that nests on beaches on tropical islands.

Chris carried his fondness for Sooty Terns and the Seychelles Islands, where he has studied them extensively, to his next post at what was then the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (MAFF) Pest Infestation Control Laboratory in Surrey. For the next 22 years Chris worked on a variety of bird species, particularly Common Starlings Sturnus vulgaris which, at the time, were an agricultural pest of considerable economic importance. How times change! Chris’s career in the civil service also saw significant organizational change, with the laboratory transformed into a more commercially aware executive agency (the Central Science Laboratory) and the change of the parent department MAFF into the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). Chris became Principal Ornithologist in the Conservation and Environment Protection Group, continuing his studies of commercially important pest species and travelling, whenever he could, to the Seychelles to undertake more work on Sooty Terns. Chris’s work on Starlings made him a world authority on the subject and he produced the definitive text on Common Starling biology, The Starling, in 1984 and co-authored Starlings and Mynas of the World in 1998.

  • image(Chris Feare)

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My first encounter with Chris was something of a shock. As a new starter at the MAFF laboratories and fresh from completing my PhD, I proudly presented him with my first report for checking. It came back a day or so later absolutely covered in minute red scribble and I retreated to my office in shame to try and work out what I had done wrong. What Chris had done was to delete about two-thirds of the words without losing any of the meaning and substantially increasing the impact. This for me personifies Chris as someone who cuts to the heart of a problem but has little time for frills and padding. My report can’t have been that bad, however, as shortly afterwards I was asked to accompany Chris on a visit to his beloved Seychelles to investigate techniques for managing Common Mynas Acridotheres tristis as part of the recovery programme for the Seychelles Magpie Robin Copsychus sechellarum. It was here that Chris was really in his element; smuggling in pure alcohol disguised as gin to preserve specimens (not to mention the mysterious white powder hidden in our luggage, which I promise was alpha-chloralose for narcotizing birds!), improvising traps, developing census techniques in the field, and coming up with practical solutions, founded on good science, that would work in sometimes difficult real world situations.

Chris’s combination of science practicality and pragmatism is no better illustrated than by his work on the Sooty Tern. At a time when conservation for most species meant absolute protection and the idea of sustainable harvesting of most bird populations was often fiercely opposed, Chris became an advocate of controlled harvest of Sooty Tern eggs based on properly gathered data on the population biology of particular breeding colonies. What Chris was able to see was that working with local people, who had a tradition of harvesting Sooty Tern eggs, was far more likely to result in successful conservation than attempting to impose bans on collection that could not be policed on remote islands and would lead to uncontrolled exploitation that could not be managed. In gathering the data needed to support these conclusions, Chris has undertaken one of the longest studies of a tropical breeding seabird population ever carried out. He continues to return to the Seychelles, often at his own expense, to monitor the return of marked birds. The volume of data, the longevity of the birds and the phenomenal distances that they travel continue to surprise us all.

In his later years at CSL, Chris became increasingly frustrated with the administration and form filling that seemed to take over from ornithology in his day-to-day work. Prior to the advent of e-mail, his in-tray became famous as the metre-high mountain of unread paperwork. When CSL relocated to a new site in Yorkshire, Chris took the opportunity to take early ‘retirement’ and bought a second home in Andalusia, Southern Spain, as a place to relax and possibly write the odd paper. Talent tends to be in demand, however, and Chris is probably busier in retirement than he was at work. His studies of Sooty Terns have expanded to include re-establishment studies on oceanic islands, he has been heavily involved in advising the UK Government on the role of wild birds in the spread of Avian Influenza, he has provided consultancy on the management of House Sparrows Passer domesticus and Starlings as far away as Mauritius and Australia, and he has still found time to edit Advances in Vertebrate Pest Management, to chair the European Vertebrate Pest Management steering committee and co-organize an International Invasive Bird Conference in Australia. All this effort has been sustained by Chris’s enthusiasm for circuit training and keep-fit, which probably arose when he discovered to his horror that he was allergic to beer! Hopefully his continuing good health, and a moderate consumption of cider, will see him continue to contribute to world ornithology for many years to come.

Chris’s contribution to the BOU over the past 20 years has been huge. His first involvement with the internal workings of the Union came when he was elected Chairman of the Meetings Committee (1986–91), then elected as Secretary (1991–97), returning to chair the Meetings Committee for a second time (1998–2003), before finally being elected Vice President (2003–2007). Only his desire to wind down and seek retirement in his newly adopted Spain stopped him from becoming President.

Chris’s involvement with the BOU coincided with some major changes within the BOU itself. As Secretary he not only provided much needed support for the sole staff member at that time, Gwen Bonham, but was central in the development and appointment of the Union’s first senior staff position and the subsequent appointment of Steve Dudley as Administrator in 1997.

As Chairman of the Meetings Committee, Chris oversaw one of the key Union activities. Working closely with the now two BOU staff and members of his Committee, he oversaw the transformation of the BOU’s conference programme into the professional and highly successful series of events many of us have come to enjoy and greatly respect. This included the Union’s first foray into the commercial arena with a meeting on avian pests and diseases (what else!) aimed at the local government.

Chris’s appointment as Vice President saw him continue his support of BOU staff. Understanding people has always been one of Chris’s strengths and managing them a real skill. On his appointment, he recognized that the more professional the Union became, the more support the two staff members required, and he was instrumental in developing the staff review system and improving communication between staff, Committees and Council.

As well as 21 years’ service to the BOU, Chris chaired various BTO committees and was on the editorial board of Bird Study (1984–91). He also edited the Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club (1997–2005). Over his career Chris has produced more than 140 scientific papers, 16 books or edited volumes, and numerous other short notes and popular articles. In recognition of his contribution to applied ornithology Chris was appointed Honorary Visiting Professor at Leeds University in 1995.

Chris Feare is an outstanding practical ornithologist, a personal inspiration and a thoroughly nice chap. His combination of practical good sense and good science has advanced our understanding of bird management in the real world and his long-standing and outstanding contribution to our country’s senior ornithological society means there is no-one more deserving of the Union Medal.