In spring 2020, as Covid-19 spread fear and infection around the globe, seismologists were able to track “a wave of silence passing over the earth, its course exactly following that of the virus”. According to Steven Lovatt, silence descended on Britain, perhaps for the first time since the Industrial Revolution: “Finally, the earth could hear itself think, and the voice of its thought was song.”
The pandemic struck in the northern hemisphere just at the moment when birdsong was resuming after the bleak winter months. That “strangest spring” will be remembered not just for the new virus, but as the time when the nation became aware of birdsong. Silent streets and gardens were filled with “a rising choir of chirps, trills and warbles”. People shared recordings made on their phones of “the woozy fluting of blackbirds” and “the deep purring of wood pigeons”.
Lockdown also reawakened Lovatt’s passion for birds. As a child he had been awestruck by the starlings that roosted in Birmingham during the winter: “They swirled and pulsed in the sky-space between concrete towers as though a dark dough of poppyseeds was being stretched and kneaded by invisible hands.” By his teens he could identify most British birds. But then his interest faded – until last year.
Beautifully illustrated in black and white by Katie Marland, Birdsong in a Time of Silence begins early in the morning of 24 March, the day after normal life in Britain was suspended. Lovatt’s slim yet wonderfully evocative book records his walks and observations of nature and birds during the spring and summer, drawing on poetry, folk songs, myths and science to reveal the key role birdsong has played not just in our culture, but our life-worlds.
Lovatt points out that birdsong probably hasn’t changed much since the stone age. It has been the soundtrack to the evolution of our species: “It’s part of our feeling of belonging in the world … we have birdsong in the blood.” It is a reminder of the natural world and “the circular, seasonal time that never ceases to follow its own patterns”. Today, being able to recognise birdsong, such as the insistent alarm calls of the blackbird when it spots a cat, enriches one’s understanding of the world “by revealing an almost forgotten aspect of the grammar of reality”.
Birdsong also shapes our identity as individuals. The songs and calls of birds that Lovatt encountered on his lockdown walks bring back childhood memories, such as waking in his grandmother’s house in the 1980s and hearing the calls of house martins nesting in the eaves “which reminded me of the working of knitting needles”. In its ability to spark forgotten memories and connect us to nature, birdsong is, says Lovatt, both “plainly mystical and profoundly ordinary”.
Lovatt deftly captures the character and personality of the birds he describes: from the ubiquitous blackbird, whose song can be heard across the land and forms “an essential ingredient” of what we know as home, to the “strange and magical” sound of skylarks, the “guttural croaks” of herons, and the “chatters, pop-gun detonations and saucy whistles” of starlings, who he says “have arguably the greatest repertoire of any British bird”.
There are 220 bird species that breed in the British Isles and as many as a quarter migrate here. Swallows fly from South Africa, some 6,000 miles away, to grace our skies. Quite how they navigate remains a mystery. In the era of climate crisis, fewer are migrating. The corncrakes and quail that Lovatt’s grandparents would have heard are less common today, as are the nightingales and turtle doves that his parents would have listened to: “I’ve never heard any of these species in Britain.”
Habitat depletion and the catastrophic decline in insect numbers means there are millions fewer birds in the country than when Lovatt was a child. As well as a big ecological problem, this impoverished soundscape is “a great loss for our sense of who we are as human beings”. Our idea of summer was once defined by the sound of birds such as cuckoos and turtle doves, “the aural equivalent of a heat haze, the gentlest corrugation of air, always just on the edge of your hearing”.
This is a joyous and profound meditation on birdsong and what it means to us, a book that brings to life an essential part of the natural world that most of us take so much for granted that we scarcely notice it.
• Birdsong in a Time of Silence is published by Particular (£12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.