Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The last nightingale



I came across by happy accident an item on radio 4 early one Sunday morning in May. It was International Dawn Chorus day and the program was recorded at the Combe Valley reserve in a wood. The presenter had to rise early to hear the birds- I hope she had a sustaining breakfast- by 4.30 am the team was in position to hear initially a tawny owl and then quickly pheasants, blackbirds, willow warblers , blue tits,song thrushes, the tiny but full throated wren all joined in the growing cacophony of sound. It is a marvellous, life affirming sound.

Each species has its own signature song, its own theme tune. Some are pretty basic, but many are rich and complex and never fail to lift the spirit – the song thrush immediately springs to mind. Each song is different, because, first of all it has to identify the singer's species. Females need to know this if they are to choose the right partner! Then, the song has to say something about the health of the singer. A long, loud song for instance indicates a certain amount of stamina, and a bird in good condition.

I heard the Dawn Chorus once one May morning when I was staying at a Youth Hostel in Suffolk. It was a very basic hostel , little more than a hut but perfectly positioned in a copse. I was woken early in the morning by the songs of nightingales and warblers. To be there was a reminder of how wonderful it was to be alive and gave an idea of a sound-scape familiar to our ancestors before the world was so polluted by noise.

The heart breaking fact is that bird song is disappearing from the countryside. So many birds that I remember as plentiful in my childhood are in what appears to be a rapid decline. Lapwings were a common sight in the fields above the estate where I lived as a boy, but not any more. Cuckoos are down by 65%, sparrows 71%, yellowhammers and linnets both down 50%. All over habitats are disappearing, breeding sites are under threat, food is under threat and insecticides and pollution and the consequence of climate change threaten the existence of the song bird. But what will we do when the last nightingale ceases its song ?

Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?