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Can you hear me? Willow Warbler by Dave Curtis, Flickr Creative Commons

All Spring the air here has been full of the sound of birdsong. I wish I could tell them apart more easily. I can recognise the quick rhythmic chirr of the house martins and the gentle nibbling calls of the swallows, both of which have had a bumper year so far and whose offspring now weave rich tapestries in the air with their complex swooping flights. Wrens are commonplace, unmistakable in sight and sound, the volume of their song turned up well past eleven. Robins, blackbirds, pigeons, collared doves, all are distinct and memorable. But that lovely rippling warble that has woken me most mornings for the past couple of months? What’s that?  Warble is the appropriate word, but which warbler? Unless one can see the bird that is singing it is hard to link sound with identity.

Birds sing for a variety of reasons, mainly to secure a mate but also to demarcate territory. It used to be thought it was mostly a bloke thing, a macho display to impress the ladies and put off rivals. But research has shown that in some species the females also sing, and many have their own special vocalisations which they use to communicate with their chicks.

Come July most mating has been done, the first-born are on the wing, and some of the adult birds are fully occupied with the business of a second brood, which will probably be reared with the same partner. The dawn chorus, so much a part of Spring, has faded away, leaving a big hush.

Not that in many places one would notice. Last month I stayed at a farm in Devon which was down a long country lane, well off the beaten track, and surrounded by fields and woodland, beside the River Exe. It seemed idyllic. Yet I saw hardly a bird while I was there. True, I did see a cock bullfinch in all his resplendent glory, but he was unique. Otherwise it was a few pigeons, a solitary crow, a blackbird, a couple of cormorants and a heron. Where were the other birds? There were no larks, no warblers or finches that I could see or hear, and there were precious few swallows and martins. Neither were there rabbits, hare, foxes, or deer. It was quiet: all too quiet.

Watching birds takes some effort, but unless one is looking for something in particular not much. By and large, if you stay still you should see or hear something. But not in that place. Nor, indeed, in many places elsewhere. I’m lucky in that the place I live has for some reason an unusual abundance of bird life. I see green and greater spotted woodpeckers, kestrel, and partridge on an almost daily basis; the pied wagtails and blue-, great- and coal-tits have had a very good year; and there is a lovely clutch of tufted duck chicks growing fat on one of the ponds. The roe deer have started their rutting season in full voice, and a hare has even come up close to my door.

But why should this seem so unusual? Surely, what is here should be normal?

Alas, not so. It is now some forty four years since Rachel Carson’s ground breaking book Silent Spring was published. It raised the alarm as no other book had before or since about the damage done to the natural environment. With great care and the meticulous attention to detail expected of a scientist – Carson was a marine biologist – she presented her thesis: that the indiscriminate and careless use of pesticides was destroying the ecosystems on which many creatures depend. Then it was unfashionable to speak up in defence of particular species, or indeed of nature at all. What counted was productivity, to which any sacrifice was condoned. Of course, the big chemical businesses tried to stop her. They labelled her a hysteric (that old habitual retort of the male to the female who is seen to be ‘upset’). They claimed she was ignorant, a bad scientist. They were wrong, and were shown to be so. Gradually the spark she had struck caught flame, and people took notice. A series of disasters across the world, such as massive oil spills, nuclear explosions, huge deforestations, the notable absence of iconic species such as certain types of whales, rhino, big cats, birds of prey and once common fish such as herring and cod, have become increasingly recognised for what they are: indicators of the impact that human societies can all too easily have on the environment. More subtly, suburban growth can impact on the environment, reducing habitats, encouraging monoculture in miniature. We’re all of us in a lethal war for resources, and by and large we’ve got all the weapons.

Which is not to say we have to use them, or use them carelessly. Since then the term environment has gathered a meaning and status that it never had before. It is now incontrovertible that we all live in a close interrelationship with other creatures and with soil and seas and rivers and the air. The battle is not yet won. Far from it. But some of us can see that the welfare of the corncrake is related to the welfare of us all; that the partridge and the plover have a voice in the way that we see and hear the environment. That these things matter, and some can even foretell the future. If we notice them.

It’s not easy to stop and listen to the big hush, or to distinguish what is a natural part of the cycle of life from what is not. But it’s not that hard either. You just have to pay attention.


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