One night in April, birdwatchers from around Britain stepped outside their doors and listened intently to something most of them had never experienced before: the fluting, mysterious, melancholy cry of the common scoter on the wing.
Flocks of these dusky sea ducks were beating their way over Britain on their long migratory journey towards their Arctic breeding grounds, easily audible to the naked ear. The first great wave was heard on the Wirral before being picked up in the Peak District, and at last by the Humber. A second wave was made out as flocks made their way along the line of Hadrian’s wall, from the Solway Firth in the west to Northumberland in the east. A third wave flew above listeners from the Severn estuary to the Wash. The birds were heard in urban Blackburn, Stalybridge, Bristol and London. It was thanks to social media that so many listeners were alert to the birds’ progress – and thanks to the silence of lockdown that they could be heard.
With few planes in the sky and vehicles on the roads to muffle its sound, birdsong has been ringing out loud and clear. It was a decade ago that the skies were anything like this quiet, when flights were grounded after the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted. The last time traffic levels were so low was the early 1970s.
Hearing birdsong with such clarity has become for many a small joy and a valuable mental health boost during lockdown. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) says there has been a spike in the appetite to learn about garden birdsong. Helpful resources abound, from the RSPB’s online identifier to Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s wonderfully poetic guide to the dawn chorus, describing the “Wagnerian grandeur” of the mistle thrush’s song and the robin’s “tone of introspection and understated tragedy”.
But British wildlife has not made a comeback during the lockdown. It is just as threatened as it was before the pandemic. It is patterns of human behaviour and human attention that have changed. This moment will be a fleeting one: birds may never be as audible again. As lockdown begins to ease, traffic will gradually pick up. Birdsong will be blotted out once more – and air quality will deteriorate.
Does it have to be that way? Birdsong, air quality, the pandemic: all these things are connected. Poor air quality kills an estimated 7 million people worldwide a year, and early indications suggest that those suffering from respiratory problems exacerbated by air pollution may be more at risk from Covid-19. As lockdown ends, humans’ attention to birdsong should, far from fading into memory, remain firmly fixed. Let the bright, piercing glories of the wren’s song act as a reminder that there is a golden opportunity to put environmental sustainability and climate action firmly at the heart of the huge interventions required to help Britain recover from the pandemic – an opportunity that must not be squandered.