As our cities and towns fell silent due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the glorious soundscape of birdsong replaced the uninterrupted rhythms of man-made noise, like a melodic silver lining. For many, it was the first time they became aware of the sounds of the birds around us, bringing comfort, and helping to raise spirits during a time of crisis.
An antidote to the stresses of daily life, I’ve often curiously tuned in to hear the orchestra of birdsong to unburden me and contemplate these strange times. Each day, robins, blackbirds and thrushes begin the set sequence, later joined by the voices of woodpigeons, wrens and warblers, while blue tits and sparrows emerge a little later when it's light enough for them to see. As Bernard Shaw wrote in his poem Dawn Chorus, "For many the daylight do but shun. I have listened to the bird’s greetings, when all around was calm and still. To me they were happy meetings, that still gives me a tremendous thrill."
Many have observed the power of birdsong to be blissfully restorative for our mental health. As writer Julian Treasure observed in his book Sound Business (2006), "Birdsong creates a state called body relaxed, mind alert — relaxing people physically but stimulating them cognitively." Back in 2012, scientists at the University of Surrey also studied the benefits of birdsong to our mood, finding that it helped to refocus and restore attention. “Nature is soul-food to us humans,” says Beccy Speight, Chief Executive of the RSPB, which saw their memberships rise last year, as over two thirds of people in the UK found solace in hearing birdsong during lockdown — a sense of comforting camaraderie which also inspired the new book, Birdsong in a Time of Silence (2021), by Steven Lovatt, which explores this rekindling of love for nature’s greatest free music festival.
In other words, birdsong is good for you, and in the pursuit of meaningful mindfulness, many are now turning to podcasts and apps to help identify birds and their choir of sounds, like Chirpomatic and Warblr — while Radio 4’s 90-second Tweet of the Day each weekday morning has become a popular ritualistic reset, with its calming tales of birds and birdsong. International Dawn Chorus Day — which this year falls on May 2nd — also celebrates nature's soaring symphony, described as “Audio Yoga” by the wildlife sound recordist Gary Moore.
Our passion for this sonic enrichment has even been captured on an album called Wake Up Calls(2020) by musician Cosmo Sheldrake, as part of a mission to highlight the loss of UK birdlife, with a playlist of songbird chatter revealing their unique identities, frequencies and rhythms. I like to believe the twittering in my garden is the birds saying thank you to me for feeding them, like an aural tonic to the human ear that makes me feel good about myself. Of course, birds trumpet, squeak and caw to attract a mate, and to call out if they are in distress, or communicate with their family members, and also to mark and defend their territory. Not all birdsong is soothing of course – think of crows and magpies – but who can doubt that skylarks and blackbirds give us that happiness fix, and in the depths of a chilly Winter the chirp of sparrows can make a gloomy day brighter.
Our love of these wild but feathered friends is deeply rooted in literature, poetry, music and mythology throughout history and popular culture, from Blake, Chaucer, Keats and Shakespeare, to Wordsworth, Shelley and the Beatles. Their song is often also connected to the threshold state between living, dying, beginning and ending. When I was a little girl, not long after my grandfather passed away, my mother and I were walking in the countryside, and with each footstep we were aware of the company of a curlew, with its long down-curved bill and loud whistled ‘cur-lee’ song. My grandfather was a teacher and Polish Scout leader, and the symbol on his traditional neckerchief was that of a curlew bird, so we found peace in believing his spirit was hopping along singing beside us.
In the Sebastian Faulks novel Birdsong, the birds fill the silence when the violence stops, as Stephen returns to the British line at the end of the war, implying that life continues despite tragedy. “People find birdsong relaxing and reassuring because over thousands of years they have learnt when the birds sing they are safe,” Julian Treasure further explains, “It’s when birds stop singing that people need to worry.”
In recent times their song seems louder than ever. Sadly, the opposite is true, as in the last 50 years, the UK has lost 40 million birds with 56% of species in the UK in decline, with threatened songsters including the house sparrow, song thrush, starling, and nightingale, all due to climate change, intensive farming and pollution. Birdsong may never be as audible again as it was during the first lockdown, blotted out by human behaviour once more, but that unexpected connection with nature was powerful enough to remind us we should all be actively involved with environmental sustainability and climate action, in order to conserve and protect the different species.
So don’t worry if you missed the welcome chorus of the birds this morning, it’s not too late, they will still be singing tomorrow, and hopefully the next day, as we remind ourselves that nature will always get us through as a reassuring constant during tough times. Remember, as the days get lighter, soon the birdsong will serenade out of this bleak Winter into the hopeful awakening of Springtime and warmth of Summer, as Ted Hughes poignantly noted about the annual return of the swifts, in Season Songs (1976), "They’ve made it again, which shows that the globe’s still working…"
Words by Kate Lawson.
Birdsong in a Time of Silence has been published by Penguin Random House.