“When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.”
Never can John Wyndham’s opening lines from The Day of the Triffids have been quite so apt. My friends in London tell me that the heart of the city, like other great conurbations all around the world, is eerily quiet. It is almost as if a neutron bomb has struck, removing in an instant all signs of human life, while leaving buildings, roads and other man-made artefacts perfectly intact.
Yet the world’s city centres are not completely silent. Rising like a tide of hope, from gardens, parks and open spaces, is a surge of sound: the individual songs of millions of birds coming together to create a very timely and welcome chorus.
Nothing quite marks the coming of spring more clearly than birdsong. From the start of the new year, as inch-by-inch, minute-by-minute, and hour-by-hour, the days get lighter and the promise of life’s annual renewal becomes ever more a reality, so the volume, intensity and variety of birdsong increases. Now – at the end of April and beginning of May – it is reaching its peak.
Yet for the eight out of 10 Britons who spend their lives in towns and cities, this annual crescendo can often pass them by. During my late twenties and early thirties, I lived in north London, during which time my few interactions with the natural world occurred when I got in my car and drove out to the Kent or Essex coast.
If I neglected my birding fix for a few weeks, I might only realise that spring had arrived when – usually on a fine, sunny morning during the first week of May – a familiar sound would reach my ears. It was the screaming of swifts: those dark, scythe-shaped creatures that tear across the city skyline in noisy squadrons as if, I once noted, “they intended to pierce through the firmament to reach the heavens beyond”.
Ted Hughes also wrote of the swifts’ annual return, which he greeted with the poetic equivalent of a sigh of relief:
They’ve made it again,
Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s
Still waking refreshed, our summer’s
Still all to come –
This spring, for those living in cities in coronavirus-enforced lockdown right the way across the northern hemisphere, things are very different. Social media, newspapers and TV and radio programmes are alive with another kind of tweeting: the realisation that there is a parallel world out there. As if to mock us – but also very reassuringly – birds are simply getting on with what they always do at this time of year: finding a mate, defending a territory and beginning the long and risky process of raising a family.
Finally, as if a veil has been lifted, people are noticing that – even in the heart of the so-called urban jungle – nature has found a place to live. We shouldn’t really be surprised, as cities deliver everything that any wild creature needs: plenty of food (either deliberately or accidentally provided by us), water to drink and bathe, places to roost and breed, earlier springs caused by the “urban heat island effect” and, most importantly of all, a huge variety of habitats squeezed into a small area, from woods to grasslands and rivers to ponds.
Because of this, unlike more specialised biomes such as mountains and moors, heaths and ancient woodlands, our cities in the UK are home to a very diverse range of plants and animals. There are bats and badgers, foxes and fallow deer, orchids and otters; kittiwakes (an ocean-going seabird) nest on the Tyne Bridge in the centre of Newcastle; porpoises, dolphins and even the occasional whale swim up London’s River Thames.
Globally, city wildlife is doing rather well too. Red-tailed hawks – the North American equivalent of our buzzard – nest on the ledges of high-rise skyscrapers in New York; magnificent frigatebirds drift over the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, their outstretched wings mirroring his own pose; lesser kestrels – one of Europe’s rarest birds of prey – gather above Seville’s vast cathedral; and pied kingfishers hover like giant black-and-white butterflies over the River Nile in Cairo. All have found a niche where they can thrive in the heart of our cities.
This is happening at a time when, in North America and western Europe – including Britain – what we think of as “the countryside” is so intensively farmed that large swathes have become more or less wildlife-free zones. So rather than being surprised that we find wildlife in the heart of our cities, we should instead perhaps wonder why more of our wild creatures haven’t moved in to take advantage of what’s on offer.
As well as the variety of species, another huge advantage of watching wildlife in a city is that it is almost always much tamer than in rural areas. I still recall, when I first moved down to Somerset from London, that I came across a fox taking a nap at the end of my garden. When it awoke, and noticed me, I expected it to behave like the streetwise city creatures I was used to, and simply go back to sleep. Instead, it stared back, its eyes full of fear, before leaping up and fleeing into the undergrowth.
Birds also behave very differently in cities. Normally shy waterbirds such as herons and kingfishers are so used to the constant stream of joggers, dog-walkers and commuters along canal and river towpaths that they usually stay put, so if you are patient you can often get great views.
But until recently, many city-dwellers have always been in so much of a hurry that they have hardly given wildlife a second thought. Only now, when despite government restrictions most people are still able to escape the confines of their home for a short while each day, are they starting to notice what has been around them all along.
So, how can you take advantage of being confined to your home and its immediate surroundings? For a start, you can follow the sage advice of my old friend David Lindo – aka the Urban Birder – and simply “look up”. You’ll be amazed what birds fly over: from peregrines, which are now breeding on cathedrals and church towers in virtually every British city, to swifts (which should be arriving back right now), house martins – compact little bluish-black and white birds that look like miniature killer whales – and, in the capital at least, the now-ubiquitous ring-necked parakeets.
Last year one of the white-tailed eagles newly released on the Isle of Wight went “flyabout”, and according to data from its radio transmitter passed all the way over London, without a single person noticing it. That’s quite an achievement when, with a 2.5-metre (more than 8ft) wingspan, these birds look like flying barn doors.
As part of your daily exercise regime, try seeking out hidden corners of natural habitat: places we built for ourselves with no thought for nature, but where wildlife has moved in. These sites range from disused railway lines to roadside verges, and gravel pits to churchyards. Even some official nature reserves – including many of those run by the London Wildlife Trust – are still accessible, because they are designated as public open spaces.
As well as the advantage of less hustle, bustle and extraneous noise from traffic and aircraft, the skies are clearer too, because air pollution has fallen dramatically. In Venice, the canals are clear and blue for the first time in decades, allowing fish and birds to thrive. The next step might be to cut light pollution at night: leaving lights blazing in empty offices and other commercial buildings is not only wasteful, but helps drive the climate crisis. It also seriously impacts wildlife, especially moths, bats and migrating birds, which can get disoriented by artificial light sources as they travel by night.
Although many wild creatures have found a home in our cities, some have had to make compromises in order to do so. A 2009 study by scientists at Aberystwyth University revealed that urban great tits now sing at a higher pitch than their country cousins, in order to make themselves heard above the traffic.
But wouldn’t it be better if they did not have to adapt and compromise? Terrible and frightening though it is, at least the current crisis has allowed us to glimpse – for a few weeks at least – just how different our cities could be in a carbon-neutral world.
My fear is that once the horror is all over, and things return to some kind of normal, we will simply ignore the lessons we learned during these atypical few weeks and months. Or might we remember how wonderful it was to wake up to an urban dawn chorus, uncluttered by extraneous noise? If so, are we prepared to make the dramatic changes to our lifestyles, and to the structure and workings of our cities, which urban wildlife needs if it is to thrive?
And if, as a result of these changes, every day of the week sounds like a Sunday, will we not all benefit?
Stephen Moss is a naturalist and author born and raised in London, but now living in rural Somerset. His latest book, The Accidental Countryside: Hidden Havens for Britain’s Wildlife, is out now (Guardian Faber, GBP16.99)