STEVEN LOVATT on birdsong in strangest spring we've ever lived through
Our fearful streets fell silent – then a wondrous sound filled the air, nature writer STEVEN LOVATT on birdsong in the strangest spring we’ve ever lived through
It’s six in the morning and still dark. I’m awake early and, knowing the children will soon be up, make the decision to steal half an hour’s solitude in the park.
From the dense latticework of trees and shrubs that clothe the wooded slope comes a constant scuttling through dead leaves. The darkness is awake and vigilant; there’s the warning tik-tik of an invisible robin from the bushes, and then the next second it appears on the path. Each individual movement of the bird, each wing-flick and pivot, is brisk and definite. It leaps round once more on the spot, then flits back into the darkness.
From close by comes a blast of song from a wren. Its harsh trill is like coarse twine zipping over a flywheel. The air is cool, not cold, and smells deliciously of earth and moss.
There’s a sudden disturbance from the deeper shade, and a blackbird comes careering out with a mad clatter and rests, still alert, on the great arm of a beech tree. It’s evidently agitated. It flicks about the bough, dipping then raising its wings, and tilting its head all the while in response to something I can’t sense.
After a few seconds the bird seems to experience some sort of inner resolution, and, as the first beam of grey light wakes the colours of the tree, it raises its head and lets out a quiet phrase of song.
Spring has arrived.
The mellifluous song thrush (Turdus philomelos) pictured perched on a bramble and singing in Swindon, Wiltshire, on April 20, 2019
The day before my early walk in the park, March 23 last year, the Prime Minister had ordered a shutdown of public life that would entirely change society as we’d known it. Travel was forbidden, schools were closed and playground gates locked, cafes and pubs were shuttered and doctors’ surgeries turned into fortresses, accessible only by phone. By Government decree, normal life was suspended.
In the seaside town where I live, compliance was immediate and total. All traffic noise ceased, and you could hear litter scuffing down the empty streets. Paper rainbows appeared in windows, painted as a token of hope by children kept indoors.
Groping for language to understand what was happening, people fell back on a wartime vocabulary of discipline and solidarity.
But then a curious thing happened. The strangeness of our new lives was amplified tenfold by the sudden arrival of the most glorious spring that anyone could remember. Covid-19 had struck the northern hemisphere at precisely that moment in the natural calendar when birdsong resumes in full force after winter. Even as the supermarket shelves were emptied of pasta, yeast and toilet rolls, its wondrous sound, tentative and sputtering at first, began to fill the air.
Broadcast from aerials and hedge-tops, trellises and lamp-posts, a rising choir of chirps, trills and warbles brought life to gardens and echoed off house-fronts, shuttered shops and bland retail parks, with no traffic noise to smother it.
As lockdown continued, we became curious about these calls, and peered down from balconies or went into the garden to see what had made them. We recorded them on our phones or shushed family members and called them over to listen.
Millions stuck at home, the young and the old, were not just hearing but actively listening, maybe for the first time, to the songs of birds – ancient songs unchanged from the Stone Age.
As the grip of the pandemic tightened, people across the British Isles were enchanted.
I was among them. Pressed to the margins of my life by the responsibilities of parenthood and work, my long-time fascination with birds was vividly reawakened.
I had started watching birds when I was seven, by which time I’d already passed through various other intense but short-lived enthusiasms for cars, dinosaurs, spacecraft and warplanes. I don’t really know why the bird phase stuck. Between the ages of eight and ten, I spent a lot of time as a bird of prey. I’d glide around the house with stiffly outstretched arms and, when I spotted a potential meal – almost always my sister – I’d tuck my arms behind my back to imitate the folded wings of a stooping falcon and speed towards my target.
Tiny piper: The goldcrest, pictured perched on a lichen branch near a pond in green wood, has a loud song in proportion to its size
By my early teens I could identify most British birds by sight and sound, my knowledge growing as we came across different species on family trips. It probably peaked at about 18, before fading as adult life took over.
Then suddenly, last spring, with time to look and listen, and perhaps as a side effect of the great bewilderment and shift of priorities that seemed to be affecting the whole country, I felt my childhood curiosity return.
Like many during the pandemic, I’ve been discovering new paths, both material and mental. As I walk, I pay attention and receive awareness in return.
At the bottom of the road, a copper beech shelters our local mob of vigilante jackdaws. They’re not bothered by me, but tilt their heads and make a soft cacophony of caws and sneezes when a raven passes high above their coral-coloured rafters. When I reach the park, it’s full of song, and I close my eyes the better to listen.
Over the past 100 years or so, researchers have started to investigate what these sounds actually mean to the birds. Some calls are quite obviously intended to warn of predators, while others relate to rituals of courtship and display. And some may be neither – Charles Darwin suggested that birds are moved by emotions and may sing from ‘mere happiness’.
Recognising the sounds and songs of even a few species of birds can delightfully enrich one’s understanding of the world. Each call not only has some significance for the bird itself and others, but also creates an emotional atmosphere that can be felt by people.
Even in bright summer sunshine, a robin’s sombre phrase can bring on a reflective mood. And who has not felt foolishly cheered by the daft laughter of park ducks? Some bird calls seem to have the power to short-circuit time and take you straight back to childhood, and in doing so abolish duration and remove you as far from the tyranny of clocks as might be possible in a culture that thinks of itself as having abolished myths.
All this is to say that, without any greater exertion than sitting down and listening to birds, you may discover climates of the soul that you had forgotten existed, or that had been drowned out in the rush and clamour of everyday life.
Above all the birdsongs of March, the blackbird’s rises unmistakable – strident and clear. In this spring, when the usual noise of people and cars is unusually absent, its call is loud and life-affirming, perhaps outdone in volume by the tart trilling of the wren, but more compelling in its variety and the emotion it seems to contain.
Blackbirds belong to the thrush family. Together, their songs in full flow share a quality of melodiousness that separates them from other species. The thrush song is all about self-expression. The range and clarity of its sounds is enthralling, and it’s often claimed that only the nightingale can rival it for its emotive effect.
The poetic starling pictured singing its heart out as the sunlight catches the iridescent sheen of its plumage
I often linger in the wild garlic wood near our home at twilight, listening to the birds as one by one they cease to call.
The wood pigeons are the first to break off, followed by the nuthatches, the woodpeckers and the dunnocks. By seven o’clock the only songs left are the hesitant phrases of the robin, the sharp rapid spool of the wren and three or four blackbirds still going strong. It is only after the last songbird falls silent that an owl will at last give out a quavering call.
Later, back home, I put my head out of the skylight to listen to the cock blackbird on our terrace exchange songs with two others in the park. Now that territories are beginning to be established the songs are noticeably relaxing, and some of the variations are delightful. The most distant of the park birds is a real virtuoso, and he seems to enjoy the contrast between mellifluous, fruity passages and clownish off-key notes.
I call the children to listen, and for a few moments we’re all quiet, our heads protruding from the roof above the empty streets, attentive to the song that pours out of three minuscule throats.
A memory returns of my own childhood when I would lie beneath a colourful quilt on warm spring evenings and listen to the blackbirds of the area singing down the dusk. Those birds may be long gone, but the song remains.
In a corner of the park there’s a stand of pines where it’s often possible to see goldcrests – birds that love conifers more than any other kind of tree. The high-pitched piping of these tiny creatures is always disproportionately loud in relation to their size.
I stand still one afternoon to watch them fizzing about one russet, fissured trunk, tilting their heads to squint for spiders’ eggs in the darkness between needles. But the longer I watch, the more I come to doubt that I can see them move at all. It’s always like this with these birds: they’re so quick that they’re simply there one second and somewhere else the next, as when an image blurs above the pages of a flick book and the brain is forced to fill in the gaps.
They come nearer, and for a minute or two they are all around, haloing me with their thin silver calls that seem almost as much of light as of sound. The birds are scarcely larger than a ping-pong ball, and how else could such tiny animals avoid losing one another in this vastness, but with voices that flash out into the dark?
Clarion call: The robin’s song is a sure sign that spring has arrived. Pictured: the European Robin perched on a tree stump
Although still only late April, it’s a hot, sunny day. The plastic guttering makes popping noises as it expands in the heat and the garden drowses under a cloudless sky.
The gradual warming and blossoming of the northern hemisphere brings with it new arrivals. Billions of birds are on the move, travelling from where they’ve wintered in southern Europe, the Middle East and Africa to breeding sites in northern Europe.
An advance party arrived in late March, but the great influx really gets going in April and lasts into early May. And each of these birds brings its own songs and calls that, for the next few months, will add to the varied chorus of birdsong that had already been rising and expanding in the mild spring air.
Of the approximately 220 species that regularly breed in the British Isles, between a fifth and a quarter migrate here in the spring. Some, such as blackcaps, come from places relatively nearby, such as south-central Europe – still an impressive distance for a bird that could nest in a teacup.
Others travel from far away – cuckoos from Central Africa and Swallows from South Africa, 6,000 miles away. That swallow darting over the newly cut grass of your local park in mid-April was, in mid-March, eating flies alongside ostriches and antelope.
Heading to the superstore in town for a tin of paint, I can’t resist taking a slight diversion to call in on a group of starlings.
It’s a while since I’ve checked on them properly, and the first thing I notice is how smart they’re looking; they almost seem different birds from the grubby, smoke-coloured things I last attended to in winter.
Every adult bird is wearing a bright new suit of feathers, and I’m glad I’ve stopped by to watch them in this area between the local prison, a barracks and an allotment, which is where this particular extended family has based itself. Starlings are forever busy, and as I look at them it’s hard to know where to turn first. Glossy black from a distance, when seen close-up each bird is its own galaxy of spangles on an iridescent ground of indigo, bottle-green and metallic blue – every colour of the petroleum rainbow. Add to this a pair of jaunty pink legs and a multi-purpose omnivore’s bill of palest ivory yellow, and you have a gorgeous bird indeed.
On top of the allotment fence, one adult of uncertain occupation – but probably a poet – is in full extraordinary flow. Extending his head to the sky, he comes out with a bizarre sequence of near-simultaneous pops, gobbles and wicked cackles.
None of the other birds seem to regard this as anything out of the ordinary, but when he finally ends the performance on an impish descant whistle, it’s only the sudden appearance of a skateboarder that prevents me from erupting into spontaneous applause.
An empty New Bond Street in London pictured on February 2 this year, during England’s third national lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus
The grass is growing long now, and flattened stalks show where mammals from shrews to foxes have their runs to and from the wood. Somewhere off the path I hear the single anvil-strike of a great spotted woodpecker, so I turn aside to take a look.
I wasn’t to know this was where the wrens would have their nest. One second there’s just the sighing of wind in the leaves, the next instant it’s as if I’ve sprung a booby-trap of alarm clocks.
It seems that hatching has only just finished, as the four chicks gathered around an old split holly stump appear not to know how to use their wings. They look too bewildered to do much but squat down like feathered frogs and hope I go away – but the parents aren’t leaving this to chance.
No less protective of their young than birds many times their size, they come very close to berate me, straining their tiny three inches upwards for maximum intimidation, bobbing in fury and churring wildly all the while.
And it works. Despite the vast difference in stature between us, something about the birds’ vehemence really is offputting, and I back off, feeling chastened.
Some birds’ nests are impossible to miss, while others, such as the wren’s, are rarely seen. Generally, the larger the bird the more conspicuous its nest – and because they crowd together, colonial nesters tend to be the most noticeable.
Right on the edge of town there’s a straggle of rooks’ nests spread between five or six beech trees. Although they sometimes come on foraging raids into town, it’s still generally true to describe rooks as the country relatives of our more familiar crows.
If pressed for my favourite British birdsong, I might opt for that of the rook. True, individual birds can hardly be said to be beautiful singers, but the corporate hubbub of a summer rookery is the natural sound I’d carry with me into exile.
Rooks tend to return to the same rookeries year after year, and some of their ancestral pads are venerable indeed. Though their nests are hard-wearing they’re still vulnerable to winter storms, and what serves as a roost may be too precarious to entrust with eggs.
It’s during these bustling weeks of spring-cleaning that rookeries are richest in sounds, from the harsh warning alarms of the sentries and the amiable bickering of birds barging past each other with twigs, to what seem like exclamations of either approval or admonishment when the cock bird presents his offering of nest material to the hen.
The gossiping quality of rook language makes it sound very human, and despite the occasional squabble the birds seem to take an active pleasure in community that extends far beyond its evolutionary practicality. The cheerful language of rooks never fails to rub off on me.
As spring turns into summer and the fine weather persists, the park begins to fill with people once more, although most are still at pains to avoid each other.
It’s hot, but coolness rises from the dark water of a narrow stream that winds in small meanders where it’s flowed aside to avoid a root system or to eat into the softer gravel of the bank. As usual, I stop for a while to watch the water drag its clear skin over the stones.
I follow the stream to the park lake. The reflections of gulls plane the dark surface, but break up in the wake of a moorhen that scoots across the water in comical, co-ordinated jerks of its head and legs.
Squinting further out on to the lake, I see to my delight that the tufted ducks have given birth to 12 dark brown pom-poms: two per chick.
In a few weeks they’ll have become more streamlined, but at the moment, similar to the moorhens, head and body seem to have only an accidental relationship. This makes for entertaining viewing – in their excited haste to dabble and snap at gnats, the top-heavy ducklings frequently overbalance and end up face-down in the water, before their madly scrambling legs and natural buoyancy set them right again.
While her chicks are getting to know the water, the duck watches over them with the greatest vigilance. Her head and neck are in constant motion as she peers alternately at the sky and the shore.
Tufted ducks are usually silent, but when a gull glides overhead she makes a squeaky call of consternation, like the sound made by a saw when you try to waggle it loose from a block of wood. I walk on, meditating on the rewards and anxieties of parenthood.
At the end of July it’s reported that the sudden decline in human activity during the pandemic has been registered by seismologists as a wave of silence passing over the Earth, its course exactly following that of the virus.
From China to Iran to Italy, vibrations from traffic, industry and construction work faded or, for a time, halted altogether; the crust of the planet ceased to judder with the noise that had been dinning, seemingly unstoppably, since the onset of the Industrial Revolution.
Finally the Earth could hear itself think, and the voice of its thought was song.
During these months it has often occurred to me that there are two kinds of silence. There’s the silence of shame, cowardice, inaction, loss and death; and there’s the silence of contentment, rest and peace, which is also the sort of silence on which the attention can feed and rediscover things it thought it didn’t know.
A year on, we’re too close to it now to tell which stories and emotions will survive from those extraordinary days.
But even back then it seemed to us possible that the spring of 2020 might be remembered differently – as the time when we first heard the birds and, hearing them, began to recover an appreciation of something universal we had somehow mislaid in our heedlessness and haste.
© Steven Lovatt, 2021
This is an edited extract from Birdsong In A Time Of Silence, by Steven Lovatt, published by Particular Books in hardback on March 4 at £12.99. To pre-order a copy for £11.43, go to mailshop. co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193 before February 28. Free UK delivery on orders over £15.
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