Spring treasure 15: Dawn chorus

30/5/20 Yesterday I went on a walk with a friend, her first outing alone since lockdown. She asked me if I thought it was true there was more wildlife and more birdsong since lockdown, or whether we were simply noticing them more. I have heard many people say it, and seen many videos of wild animals wandering care-free down empty high streets, but the question of there being more wildlife, objectively speaking, needed logical consideration. It was probably a subject for the radio programme More or Less.

When she began describing the things she’d noticed, it was clear to me that most of it was just a matter of hearing birds where traffic noise would normally drown them out or encourage them to move elsewhere; or birds and other animals being happy in places they’d usually avoid. Fewer people, less traffic and less noise all mean that animals may be considering raising a family or looking for food where they never would have before. People have also slowed down, are spending more time at home and probably more time walking and cycling in their neighbourhood; therefore they are most likely seeing and hearing things that usually pass them by. But I don’t really see how there can be more wildlife already. Perhaps there will be at the end of the season, if nesting is more successful or more widespread this year. Perhaps some plants and animals that are sensitive to air quality will also benefit, though I can’t imagine the effects would be noticeable just yet.

From a personal point of view, I haven’t noticed any obvious differences. I live in the countryside, where the changes have been far less extreme than in towns and cities. The changes in my life have also been far less extreme: despite the inevitable challenges, I am extremely glad of more time to appreciate spring, but I feel that the process of honing my powers of observation has happened slowly over the last decade, rather than quickly in the last two months. It still has a long way to go, but lockdown hasn’t particularly sped it up.

There is one thing, however, which I probably have lockdown to thank for, as well as the hot weather. For a while I have meant to get up in time to hear the dawn chorus, but this can be a difficult prospect when days are full and I am worried about getting enough sleep. My days are still full, but in a more solitary way than usual: I am only accountable to myself, and so my concern about lack of sleep is much reduced. This year, I have slept in the garden, without a tent, on a couple of nights that have been warm and dry enough for the purpose. I took my sound recorder out with me, sure that I would wake up when the birds started singing, and hopeful that I could then just go back to sleep afterwards. This plan worked nicely: I was treated to a concert around 4am. I was surprised, however, that it wasn’t as deafening as I expected.

On another occasion a few nights later, sleeping indoors this time but with my windows open, I happened to wake up at the right time, and noticed an interesting phenomenon when I went into the bathroom which overlooks the neighbours’ house and the road. On that side of the house, the twittering chorus was much more prominent. On the garden side, there was a blackbird dominating the proceedings. I had to go back and forward to stick my head out on each side of the house to check I wasn’t imagining it. It happened that a chorus of wood pigeons joined in at precisely the moment when I decided to record a clip of the neighbours’ side of the house, but the twittering was still very noticeable. I didn’t hear the cockerel until I listened back to the audio clip several weeks later.

Dawn chorus village side

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Dawn chorus garden side

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On reflection, I wonder whether this effect was due to the greater density of small gardens and hedges on the side of my house that faces towards the village: there surely must be more sparrows and other little birds who like the cover of ivy and dense hedges. I have often heard sparrows in a hedge at the end of the road, whereas in my garden there are none. Though large, my garden is surrounded by expansive fields, and so the total number of twittering birds on this side of the house could be much smaller.

I loved my experiences of the dawn chorus, and I hope to enjoy many more. But I also observed two things. First, that the quantity and quality of bird song throughout the morning, though not as orchestral, is still wonderful, and I can enjoy it daily without depriving myself of sleep. Such as now, while I am writing. The second is a regret. I can’t help wondering how much more awe-inspiring the dawn choruses of fifty to a hundred years ago would have been, before we lost well over half of our birds to industrialised farming and the grubbing up hedgerows after the war. If there’s one good thing to come out of Brexit, I hope fervently that it is the promised reordering of farming subsidies to incentivise more forcefully the encouragement and protection of wildlife.