Birdsong Rises Like a Tide of Hope from Our Silenced Cities

Lockdown has allowed us a glimpse of how different our cities could be in a carbon-neutral world…

European starling
European starling. Photo: Tim Felce.

“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.

Pied Wagtail Bird
A pied wagtail walks across a deserted arrivals hall in Terminal 2 at Heathrow airport in London. Photo: Victoria Jones/PA.

If I neglected my birding fix for a few weeks, I might only realise that spring had arrived when – usually on a fine, sunny morning during the first week of May – a familiar sound would reach my ears. It was the screaming of swifts: those dark, scythe-shaped creatures that tear across the city skyline in noisy squadrons as if, I once noted, “they intended to pierce through the firmament to reach the heavens beyond”.

Ted Hughes also wrote of the swifts’ annual return, which he greeted with the poetic equivalent of a sigh of relief:

They’ve made it again, Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s Still waking refreshed, our summer’s Still all to come –

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. We shouldn’t really be surprised, as cities deliver everything that any wild creature needs: plenty of food (either deliberately or accidentally provided by us), water to drink and bathe, places to roost and breed, earlier springs caused by the “urban heat island effect” and, most importantly of all, a huge variety of habitats squeezed into a small area, from woods to grasslands and rivers to ponds…

This article is courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd. You can read the full story here.

Stephen Moss is a naturalist and author born and raised in London, but now living in rural Somerset. His latest book, The Accidental Countryside: Hidden Havens for Britain’s Wildlife, is out now (Guardian Faber, £16.99)

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Stephen Moss is a naturalist and author born and raised in London, but now living in rural Somerset.


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