Birdsong has risen like a tide of hope from our silenced cities. Is it here to stay?
“When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.”
Never can John Wyndham’s opening lines from The Day of the Triffids have been quite so apt. My friends in London tell me that the heart of the city, like other great conurbations all around the world, is eerily quiet. It is almost as if a neutron bomb has struck, removing in an instant all signs of human life, while leaving buildings, roads and other man-made artefacts perfectly intact.
Yet the world’s city centres are not completely silent. Rising like a tide of hope, from gardens, parks and open spaces, is a surge of sound: the individual songs of millions of birds coming together to create a very timely and welcome chorus.
Nothing quite marks the coming of spring more clearly than birdsong. From the start of the new year, as inch-by-inch, minute-by-minute, and hour-by-hour, the days get lighter and the promise of life’s annual renewal becomes ever more a reality, so the volume, intensity and variety of birdsong increases. Now – at the end of April and beginning of May – it is reaching its peak. Yet for the eight out of 10 Britons who spend their lives in towns and cities, this annual crescendo can often pass them by.
This spring, for those living in cities in coronavirus-enforced lockdown right the way across the northern hemisphere, things are very different. Social media, newspapers and TV and radio programmes are alive with another kind of tweeting: the realisation that there is a parallel world out there. As if to mock us – but also very reassuringly – birds are simply getting on with what they always do at this time of year: finding a mate, defending a territory and beginning the long and risky process of raising a family.
Finally, as if a veil has been lifted, people are noticing that – even in the heart of the so-called urban jungle – nature has found a place to live. Because of this, unlike more specialised biomes such as mountains and moors, heaths and ancient woodlands, our cities in the UK are home to a very diverse range of plants and animals. There are bats and badgers, foxes and fallow deer, orchids and otters; kittiwakes (an ocean-going seabird) nest on the Tyne Bridge in the centre of Newcastle; porpoises, dolphins and even the occasional whale swim up London’s River Thames.
This is happening at a time when what we think of as “the countryside” is so intensively farmed that large swathes have become more or less wildlife-free zones. So rather than being surprised that we find wildlife in the heart of our cities, we should instead perhaps wonder why more of our wild creatures haven’t moved in to take advantage of what’s on offer.
As well as the variety of species, another huge advantage of watching wildlife in a city is that it is almost always much tamer than in rural areas. I still recall, when I first moved down to Somerset from London, that I came across a fox taking a nap at the end of my garden. When it awoke, and noticed me, I expected it to behave like the streetwise city creatures I was used to, and simply go back to sleep. Instead, it stared back, its eyes full of fear, before leaping up and fleeing into the undergrowth.
Birds also behave very differently in cities. Normally shy waterbirds such as herons and kingfishers are so used to the constant stream of joggers, dog-walkers and commuters along canal and river towpaths that they usually stay put, so if you are patient you can often get great views. But until recently, many city-dwellers have always been in so much of a hurry that they have hardly given wildlife a second thought. Only now, when despite government restrictions most people are still able to escape the confines of their home for a short while each day, are they starting to notice what has been around them all along.
As part of your daily exercise regime, try seeking out hidden corners of natural habitat: places we built for ourselves with no thought for nature, but where wildlife has moved in. These sites range from disused railway lines to roadside verges, and gravel pits to churchyards. Even some official nature reserves – including many of those run by the London Wildlife Trust – are still accessible, because they are designated as public open spaces.
Although many wild creatures have found a home in our cities, some have had to make compromises in order to do so. A 2009 study by scientists at Aberystwyth University revealed that urban great tits now sing at a higher pitch than their country cousins, in order to make themselves heard above the traffic.
But wouldn’t it be better if they did not have to adapt and compromise? Terrible and frightening though it is, at least the current crisis has allowed us to glimpse – for a few weeks at least – just how different our cities could be in a carbon-neutral world.
My fear is that once the horror is all over, and things return to some kind of normal, we will simply ignore the lessons we learned during these atypical few weeks and months. Or might we remember how wonderful it was to wake up to an urban dawn chorus, uncluttered by extraneous noise? If so, are we prepared to make the dramatic changes to our lifestyles, and to the structure and workings of our cities, which urban wildlife needs if it is to thrive?
And if, as a result of these changes, every day of the week sounds like a Sunday, will we not all benefit?