- Travel Blog
Taken from New Scientist Magazine, 9 June 2007
Someone who invents frozen shower jellies for a living doesn’t sound like a typical birdwatcher, but then Mark Constantine isn’t a typical entrepreneur. He is the millionaire founder of Lush, the cosmetics chain that sells handmade “vegetarian” creations in 420 shops worldwide. He is also an obsessive birdwatcher. Now Constantine has turned his entrepreneurial zeal to revolutionising the use of sounds in identifying birds. He told Alison George about his new approach from his apothecary – style lab on the UK’s south coast.
Birdwatching and cosmetics – it’s an unlikely combination of interests.
It all boils down to women! When I was 19, I got into doing make – up for amateur theatre because I got to meet all the girls. Then I met my future wife, and she was into birdwatching. Not very New Scientist, but there we are.
Cosmetics and toiletries are all about appearance, so why do you find birds’ song more interesting than their plumage?
Bird sound is behavioural, and that immediately makes it more interesting than plumage. It is like the difference between looking at what someone wears and what someone does.
Why aren’t bird sounds part of the birdwatcher’s usual repertoire?
There is no vocabulary to describe birdsong. One person might describe a particular bird call as “do-wap, do-wap” but this doesn’t translate well if pronounced by, say, a Swede. And it’s hard to guess sounds from descriptions such as “phone ringtone” or “faraway train horn.” It’s easier to stick to descriptions of physical characteristics such as feathers or beak size.
What inspired you to change this?
The ornithologist Peter Grant wrote a booklet called The New Approach to Identification, using identification clues from scientific research to make birdwatching more accurate, but he didn’t deal with birdsounds. I wanted to do for sounds what he had done for plumage, but when I looked into the detail available to birders, the raw material was terrible. When recordings were available, the birds on them often weren’t corretly idenitfied and there were no details about
the sex or age of the bird – which can make a difference to its call. There was no real science there. On the other hand, I realised that there were huge amounts of fabulous bioacoustics work in academic journals that no birdwatcher had heard of. So I decided to change all that.
In 2000, I founded an organisation called The Sound Approach with fellow birders Arnoud van den Berg and Magnus Robb. We aim to record the songs of different birds digitally, in stereo, with information about their age and sex. We’re focusing mainly on birds from the western Palaearctic – a geographical area that includes Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. We transcribe birdsong into sonograms, which show the sound graphically, giving information about the tone, modulations and gaps in the bird’s call, as well as the different frequencies and harmonics of the song. Then if you go into the field – even in the dark – and record a bird, you can run it into a computer and produce a sonogram to compare with others. So birds can be identified without the visual clues. The book we published about this, The Sound Approach to Birding, has gone down well. In 2006, it won the best bird book award from the British Birds magazine and the British Trust for Ornithology.
How do you fit this in on top of your work at Lush?
Magnus and Arnoud work pretty much full time on the project, and I help out whenever I can. Magnus has been focusing on seabirds for the past few months, travelling to the Cape Verde islands off west Africa and recording birds such as Boyd’s little shearwater and Fea’s petrel for the first time. Our next Sound Approach book will be about petrels.
Which bird has the most memorable song?
The marsh warbler, which is rare in the UK but common in Europe and western Asia. It is an amazing rapper, and its song is rich and fast. It can also imitate 70 other species, picking up songs from birds it meets on its travels.
Describe your most amazing birding moment.
That’s hard. A few times I’ve thought I would be sick with excitement. I really liked seeing small ducks called Steller’s eider in Norway – they’re rare and beautiful. Two years ago in Poole Harbour (in Dorset UK), 6000 song thrushes flew over my head on migration. Also, one day from my balcony I watched 50,000 wood pigeons pass overhead in 3 hours. You wouldn’t imagine there were all these exciting things to see your veranda. That is what I hope the Sound Approach books will illustrate – that there is so much adventure to be found.
You still create new cosmetics, so after a day in the lab you must smell quite fragrant. How does this go down with your fellow birders?
I get together with my birding friends in the pub every Tuesday night, and I was banned from sitting with them for a while!
You’re a self-confessed obsessive character. Is this what makes you successful in both the cosmetics business and birding?
I think that people like me do have kind of psychological profile, trying to impress someone who is no longer there: my father walked out when I was 2. Apparently a lot of entrepreneurs had a troubled childhood.
Inventing cosmetics would be a dream job for many people. How did you end up in this field?
After school I became a hairdresser but I wasn’t very good at it, so I ended up in trichology – the study of hair and the scalp – and started to make shampoos. I wanted to make products that had minimal impact on the environment. At first people thought my products were unsellable and too earnest. Then I met Anita Roddick, founder ofThe Body Shop, and went on to become her largest supplier.
I don’t imagine that your lab at Lush is like a typical cosmetics lab.
It is more like a kitchen with lots of bottles of essential oils, as well as synthetic materials like cetyl alcohol or citric acid. Where possible we try to use organic products, but we are happy to use safe synthetics. There are various tubs containing things like tapioca, ground flour, rose petals, fennel seeds and hibiscus.
Describe a typical Lush store.
We want the products to look good enough to eat, so they are on display like food at a delicatessen, mostly without packaging. With most cosmetics, around 19 out of 20 parts of the price goes on packaging, but because we don’t bother with that, we can spend money on ingredients such as orange blossom absolute that cost a fortune.
What is your inspiration when you create new proudcts for Lush?
I take an artistic approach, creating things on a whim rather like painting a picture. For example, I was working on a men’s fragrance when I realised I wanted to create somehing that captured how I would have liked my dad to smell. So I called that range “Dear John.”
What would you most like to be remembered for: founding Lush Cosmetics or one of your birding achievements?
To hear the “best rapper in natural history” – the marsh warbler – in action, visit http://http:tinyurl.com/2nqla. And find out more on birdsong at www.soundapproach.co.uk
Put it this way, this is what I’d like on my gravestone: “This person found a red-rumped swallow at Poole Harbour.”