“Travel was forbidden; schools closed and playground gates were locked; cafes and pub were shuttered … Where I live, compliance was immediate and total. All traffic noise ceased, and you could hear litter scuffing down the empty streets. Paper rainbows began to appear in windows, painted as a token of hope by children kept indoors; but of the children themselves there was no sign. It felt less like a catastrophe than an aftermath, as if nine-tenths of the population had disappeared overnight….
“But most of all, we began to notice the birdsong.”
This, then, was March 2020, that strangest of springs. I was working at Five Leaves Bookshop, still going to work to send off mail orders. I walked in for 45 minutes, early every morning, in that most brilliant of springs. There were no cars, no street noise … and I began to notice the birdsong.
I’d not wanted to read any books about COVID, but picked this up, the page falling open to the quotes above, on page two. I stopped, thinking of that period and of the return of wildness to our cities and towns – the goats taking over Llandudno for example. The book went unread for a year, but is now out in paperback and, searching for the quote, I read my first ever book on birds, specifically on birdsong, by a birder. Save for a few paragraphs at the start of the book there are only occasional references to the first year of COVID as Lovatt talks us through the birdsong we heard. Who are these birds? Why are they making such a racket? Are they really singing? Do they see it as singing? Do they mimic other sounds?
I was entranced by this short book. Not so entranced as Lovatt was with nature when “As a boy I assembled… quite a collection of vole skulls and the glossy bramble-black wing-cases of beetles, to the unexpressed delight of the rest of the family.” But like other boys – did girls ever do this? – I collected eggs for a period, little knowing how bad that was. But there it ended. Not so for Lovatt, who has been listening to birds for nearly forty years, though he is still “often fooled by chaffinches”. His way of describing the song he hears is charming – the bullfinch, for example “has a diffident repertoire of unassuming creaks and croaks, as if something hidden in the woodland badly needed oiling.” He describes the willow warbler, which will fly from Africa, usually non-stop, covering a distance of 5,000 miles or more in just a few days – one of what he describes as long-haul specialists that double their weight before leaving in order to survive the journey. They join a cacophonous throng singing (or croaking or wheezing) their little hearts out to attract mates and to warn others off their territory.
In the playground – “temporarily converted to a starling canteen” – he watches starlings which “seen in close-up each bird in 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 multi-purpose omnivore’s bill of palest ivory yellow, and you have a gorgeous bird indeed.” OK, OK. Somewhere upstairs there’s my late mother’s old binoculars. I’ll get them later.
I learned more about birds in 140 pages than in the rest of my life. Did you know that egg-bound chicks cheep and squeak and learn their parents’ calls before hatching? Vitally important to colony-nesting seabirds “such as puffins, terns and guillemots, since amongst all that caterwauling a chick needs to recognise its parent, and vice-versa, as soon as it has hatched.”
Of course our bird population is changing. Insecticides did their work, climate change impacts… but also university buildings have become cliffs and street-thrown kebabs are as good as herring, if not so healthy to the eater.
But soon it’s the solstice. The mating calls are mostly gone, but “the delinquent starlings keep up their incessant rasping as they beg for food, and sometimes they take short but perilous stiff-winged flights low over the lake to the island, where scores of them wheeze and rattle in the wind-tossed trees.”
The book ends with a handful of poems about birdsong – including John Clare (of course), Emily Dickinson, “Sumer is icumen in”, Aderyn du (a Welsh poem), and Adlestrop…
“And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.”
Birdsong in a Time of Silence is available here: fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/birdsong-in-a-time-of-silence-2/