At dusk birdsong echoes through trees around the garden. On a chilly evening, not blessed by setting sunbeams, I can hear chaffinches, robins, pigeons and a croaky pheasant arriving late to the party. But one familiar voice is missing from the chorus. Where is he?
Our young male blackbird. The one that sits tip-top of the noble fir, trilling his clear and unmistakeable four-note blues. He’s always there. His tune so curiously distinct I have tried to record it on my mobile phone. Variations on a theme. In G major, if my blues-playing husband and myself are not sadly mistaken.
Maybe I just went out at the wrong time. But without him tonight’s evensong seems strangely incomplete. An ominously missing piece on International Day of the Dawn Chorus. A symbolic absence, I feel, on the eve of the UN Report warning of the sixth mass extinction. One million species likely to be erased from the face of the Earth. Thanks to us. The humankind.
Perhaps I am being too melodramatic. Blackbirds are still one of the most common songbirds in town and country gardens. The male of the species still greets and ends the day from treetops and chimney pots. In this year’s RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch, the blackbird sits in fifth place on the list of the ten birds most often seen in Scottish gardens. Having recovered from a decline in numbers in recent years, Turdus merula is now off the Amber list of Conservation Concern. But the blackbird is still at risk of habitat loss. Digging up hedges or cutting them at the wrong time, draining fields and concreting over gardens to make parking lots, our carelessly clodhopping species tends to annihilate the life chances of other living creatures. Unfortunately these are creatures we need. Not only for our own support systems, but also to create that intangible sense of wellbeing in a place we belong. A place worth living in rings with birdsong.
New research reveals 82% of people say bird song makes them feel positive, and more than half (54%) would choose it as the #1 sound to wake up toRSPB: Ask an expert
Are we listening? In front of our eyes and ears, the natural world is shrinking. ‘Over 40 million birds have vanished from UK skies in just 50 years’ says RSPB. Their campaign to Let Nature Sing is a lyrical call to action. The recording of echoing birdsong has the haunting sound of another time, a forgotten place.
For me the dawn chorus is now a sad-sweet wake up call. There’s something precious about each changing season. Each spring a reminder of what we have lost, and how much more we have to lose. But also a timely alert – it’s not too late to discover and protect the wonders we still have left. That’s something I’ve come to realise more and more over the last twenty-five years, since my man and I began an unlikely adventure on an almost accidental island of wildlife surrounded by Scottish farmland and ever-advancing property development.
An accidental sanctuary
Too swampy and lumpy for easy cultivation, it’s been protected from developers (so far) by the greenbelt. The result is an unexpected sanctuary for a motley mix of creatures thriving on a few hectares of trees and marshland.
Bluebells and wild garlic battle it out beneath maturing beech trees. A roe deer trail leads through a grassy clearing that was once the neighbourhood dump. A pair of swans swoop in every year to rear their brood on the pond that has been here for over 100 years, despite the heavy weight of topsoil washed downstream with every downpour. Small birds nest and forage in the hedgerow we planted with the help of EU funding in a pre-Brexit era.
Leaving well alone – by accident more than design – we have reaped the rewards in growing numbers of birds, beasts, bees and (though less prolific) butterflies. There are gaps. No more cuckoo calls, fewer summer swallows, and hedgehogs rarely if ever seen. But since a progressive young farmer took possession of the neighbouring field we see hares around the house and hear skylarks in the sky. There’s the thrill of red squirrels joining the crowd at the bird feeder. And did badgers make that large hole in the far clearing? The new, cheapo night vision camera might provide evidence. With old tech pen and notebook, we list each season’s sightings: kingfishers, tree creepers, woodpeckers, wrens, jays, magpies, finches, an occasional thrush, tits, robins, house and hedge sparrows, buzzards, and on the pond herrons, ducks, moorhens, waterfowl of all kinds…
Of all these, I have a special soft spot for the blackbirds. The way they hop around, comfortable on the ground (though, my man gets irritated when they scatter leaf litter across his newly swept path). The plucky mobbing of large predators threatening their young. The chak-chak warning of danger. The confident full-throated song at daybreak and sundown.
One singer, one song?
Blackbirds, it seems, are great mimics. They learn from their elders and sounds around them, imitating human whistles, creating local dialects.
Blackbirds have been recorded making the sound of a reversing lorry!RSPB
Our young male seems to sing the blues. G major, ‘the key of benediction’ (and national anthems) is favoured by many pop, rock and blues singers. He’s been working on his tune since late February, most likely seeking his first mate, with a simple, memorable melody. Perhaps he heard something he liked from the lovely bunch of musical young human visitors who often come to stay. And now, perhaps, one of my musician sons suggests, the blackbird’s song will inspire a new tune from them in response.
I’m hoping the blackbird will be here to join in. Humans and birds in harmony. There’s a thought.
Featured image: Blackbird on a branch, singing. Picture by hedera.baltica CC BY-SA 2.0