West Midland Bird Club

Tony Norris Obituary from the Independent, 8 April 2005

The following obituary appeared in the Independent, 8 April 2005.

Tony Norris

Founder of Bardsey Island bird observatory

Tony Norris was one of the last surviving members of the post-war generation of ornithologists who helped to turn birdwatching from the hobby of a select few to a popular national pastime.

He was the prime mover in persuading the RSPB to move from its cramped headquarters in London to the spacious estate of Sandy Lodge, Bedfordshire, in 1961, and lent them the money to do so. Similarly he talked the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) into moving from Tring to a more commodious home in Thetford, Norfolk. He helped to found the bird observatory on Bardsey Island in North Wales. And he served the West Midland Bird Club, the largest provincial bird society in the country, for nearly 70 years, successively as secretary, chairman and president.

Outgoing, and knowing almost everyone in the bird world, Norris helped to forge a new dynamism into the work of bird societies. He was an active member of the BTO and a key member of the RSPB's council in the 1950s and 1960s, chairing its finance and general purposes committee. He received the RSPB's coveted Gold Medal in 1964 for services to ornithology.

The possibilities of Bardsey as a centre for bird study had come to Norris during a short stay on the island in 1952. It boasted resident choughs and peregrine falcons, and a large colony of Manx Shearwaters, whose nightly caterwauling on dark summer nights entranced Norris. The island was also on a migration route, making it an ideal place for an observatory and ringing station. It was also a stop-off point for wandering exotic birds such as Rose-coloured Starling, Grey-cheeked Thrush and Blackpoll Warbler. 'It is remarkable,' he wrote, 'that an island as well situated as Bardsey should be so little known to ornithologists.'

Norris persuaded the relatively wealthy West Midland Bird Club, of which he was then chairman, to join with the West Wales Field Society to found the Bardsey Bird and Field Observatory at a disused farmhouse on the island, now one of a network of 17 bird observatories across Britain. Norris and Ronald Lockley were elected co-chairmen of the observatory committee, with the naturalist Bill Condry as its secretary. Norris edited its first annual reports and summarised their work in papers published in the journal British Birds. Later outbuildings were renovated as self-catering accommodation, making the island a relatively comfortable as well an ecologically rewarding place to visit.

Since 1953, nearly a quarter of a million birds have been ringed at Bardsey. One of the Manx Shearwaters ringed by Norris and others in that first year was still alive in 2004, and became celebrated as the oldest known wild bird in the world (though it has very recently been beaten to the record by a few months by another Manx Shearwater ringed at Coupland in Northumberland).

Tony Norris was the son of the vicar of Cradley, Worcestershire. He was educated at Monkton Combe School in Bath and attended the London School of Printing. In 1936, he entered the Birmingham printing business of Hudson & Son, whose proprietor was his maternal grandfather. He remained with the firm all his professional life, eventually becoming its chairman.

In the same year he joined what was then the Birmingham Bird Club (and became the West Midland Bird Club). He was called up in 1939 and served in the Army in West Africa and India, where he reached the rank of major and was mentioned in dispatches. In 1940 he married Cicely Hurcomb, daughter of the distinguished civil servant and keen ornithologist Sir Cyril (later Lord) Hurcomb.

The post-war years were perhaps Norris's most active years in field ornithology. In 1947 he published Notes on the Birds of Warwickshire, forerunner of many subsequent county bird reports, combining field observations with records from museums, collections and private diaries. He helped to organise the first comprehensive bird survey of the West Midlands counties of Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Staffordshire in 1950, and summarised their findings in a booklet (The Birds of Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Staffordshire) the following year.

Norris was particularly interested in the Corncrake. In 1938–39 he organised a nationwide survey of this noisy but rarely seen bird in an attempt to reveal the causes of its apparent decline. He published the conclusions in two papers published in British Birds after the Second World War. The survey revealed that the bird had all but ceased to breed in lowland England, and was in decline everywhere apart from on certain Hebridean islands. Norris correctly attributed the decline to the mechanisation of agriculture and the ploughing of hay meadows, formerly maintained to feed farm horses.

Norris was also interested in urban birds, organising counts of starlings as they roosted on trees and buildings in the centre of Birmingham. The work involved much peering at tall buildings through binoculars and even some rooftop scrambling, activities that interested the police more than once.

He was a keen gardener. In 1955, he and Cecily bought and restored an 18th-century stable at Clent in Worcestershire. He also acquired a plant nursery and specialised in growing South African nerine lilies, for which he won several awards. Another passion shared by husband and wife was archery, for which the long lawns at Clent were enlisted. He remained an active elder statesman of the West Midland Bird Club until 1999, when, aged 83, he handed over the presidency to Bill Oddie.

Peter Marren

Cuthbert Antony Norris, ornithologist, horticulturist and businessman: born Cradley, Worcestershire 2 January 1917; Secretary and Chairman, West Midland Bird Club 1953-75, President 1975-99; married 1940 Cecily Hurcomb (two daughters); died Worcester 25 February 2005.

Reproduced by permission from The Independent, Obituaries, 8 April 2005.

© West Midland Bird Club, 147 World's End Lane, Birmingham, England B32 1JX
Registered charity, number 213311

Ornithology in Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire & the West Midlands county, since 1929.

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