Walking on Eggshells

The relationship between ornithology and mental health might not seem immediately obvious, but like so much in this strange new world it seems to be becoming clearer. Re-tuning to birdsong has been one of the bright spots in a dark time. From the superbly named Cosmo Sheldrake’s sonic journey through the woodlands [here] with hooting tawny owls, churring nightjars, warbling nightingales, and trilling skylarks …

… to Steven Lovatt’s observation (‘The Earth could hear itself think’):

“The pandemic had struck the northern hemisphere at just that moment in the natural calendar when birdsong resumes in full force after the quiet and solitary winter months. Millions of people were not just hearing but actively listening, perhaps for the first time, to the songs of birds – ancient songs, perhaps unchanged from the stone age.”

Lovatt claims:

“The calls and responses range across various bandwidths, and some speak to the soul more readily than others. Some bird calls seem to have the power to short-circuit time and take you straight back to childhood. Above all the other birdsongs of March, the blackbird’s rises unmistakable – strident and clear. In the sombre spring of last year, when the usual noise of people and cars was absent, the song, transmitted from aerials, trellises and lamp-posts, felt loud and life-affirming, compelling in its variety and the emotion it seems to contain.”

That sense of going straight back to childhood triggered memories for me.

As a nerdy slightly disturbed un-cool pre-teen I had a serious obsession with birdlife. Trekking out across fields to peer through cheap binoculars, and compiling endless notebooks and scrapbooks I collected pellets and single feathers, searched for eggshells, climbed trees to squint into nests and dreamt of Golden Eagles and Peregrine Falcons. My favourite film was Ken Loach’s Kes and my favourite books was Storm Boy, an Australian book about a boy who has a Pelican which dies. I remember weeping buckets over both.

Springtime and Soundscapes

It seems like sound, like smell can evoke memories and transport us back away from this hell.

Now it’s March again and (technically) Spring time.

It’s not surprising that ‘birdsong became the sound of lockdown’ because we’ve had little alternative than to walk, and walk and walk often on our own. We’ve been forced to appreciate parks and the remnant scraps of urban wild spaces. The cycle paths are teeming with prams and e-bikes, scooters and joggers vying for the physical space.

With our stressed and anxious minds unable to process the enormity of what we are experiencing we are switching off our analytic brains and absorbing pure sound.

Maybe also it’s an alluring alternative to our existence glued to our screens, or maybe it’s a longing for natural restoration in the face of overwhelming evidence that that’s unlikely.

Phoebe Weston has pointed out that while Sheldrake is an artist his approach is very similar to a new breed of “acoustic ecologists” who are noticing how birds have a sonic as well as a physical niche in the ecosystem:

“Part of his aim is to highlight how we may not be conscious of the loss of wildlife from our lives. Many of the birds featured on his album, such as marsh warbler, mistle thrush and dunnock, are no longer a ubiquitous part of our soundscapes. The star performers from today’s chorus – blackbirds and robins – didn’t make it on to Sheldrake’s album because they are not (yet) on the red or amber list of endangered British birds.”

This is similar to what Satish Kumar, editor of Resurgence magazine has pointed out – that the dawn chorus is really an audible metric of the health of a local ecosystem.

The Age of Extinction | The Guardian · ‘A conversation across time and space’ – Cosmo Sheldrake

Spring Time

But this hasn’t come out of nowhere.

Think of Carel Fabritius (and Donna Tartt’s) melancholic pop sensation The Goldfinch, think of Helen Macdonald’s 2007 H is for Hawk which reached The Sunday Times best-seller list within two weeks of being published, or Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun which combines reflections on alcoholism with nature memoir. Think of the internet obsession with murmurations or remember the phenomenon of The Lost Words – A Spell Book by writer Robert Macfarlane and artist Jackie Morris, or Wind Resistance the surprise runaway hit of the 2016 Edinburgh International Festival, Karine Polwart’s deep-dive into the world of Fala Flow which featured bird lore, field recordings and memoir. Or take the work of Glasgow-based Finnish artist Hanna Tuulikki  and her ground-breaking 2014 project Air falbh leis na h-eòin (Away with the Birds) which focused on the mimesis of birds in Gaelic song. Here she performs a wordless improvisation based on musical patterns of four songbirds: Blue tit, Great tit, Song thrush and Wren.

Folk radio report that this is: “Described as an invocation to spring, in which Tuulikki explores what it might mean to become-with-bird”, this is from her album Little Drum Wood:

Gathering these contributions from Helen Macdonald, Amy Liptrot, Jackie Morris, Karine Polwart, Hanna Tuulikki and noticing the (well overdue) Nan Shepherd revival you might ascribe a gender focus to this phenomenon, but I think that would be a mistake. If we are taking notice of bird and song and the natural world on our doorstep it is because we are in crisis like we never have been before and these are just some of the best people who have articulated that relationship.

Is it calming our neurotic selves to listen to the birds?

Are we drawn to bird song because we’re surrounded with such bleakness?

In a lovely essay (If I Were a Blackbird) Mairi McFadyen quotes the Irish philosopher William Desmond:

“Compare a singing being with something inanimate. The wind blows around a bush and makes a whirr or a low burr, but neither the wind or bush properly sings. But a bird chirps, a thrush sings out again and again a line of lush notes, and we sense a presence there that was not manifest before. Something is coming awake in singing life … Song is a witness of affirming presence …The bird’s song is an unselfconscious, effortless, celebration of being.”

This could all be nonsense. I have no idea whether people are really listening to birdsong more. Maybe it’s all just an online phenomenon regurgitated in pointless media. I don’t know. I listen more but maybe I’m just regressing to my pre-teen geek self.

What I do think is funny – and one of a billion dark ironies about all of this hellscape  – is that air quality and a reduction of pollution is a very real thing, it’s a tangible gain from the massive reduction in air travel (as is a quietening from a reduction of flights – one of the reasons you can ‘hear’ better).

It’s bitterly comic that all that’s going to be destroyed as we all go back to ‘flying’.

Away with the Birds eh?




Comments (12)

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  1. Pub Bore says:

    I find that roasting a hen that’s stopped laying lifts my depression; the aroma that fills the house from a roasting hen is by itself enough to raise my spirits when I’m down in the dumps. Broth made from the bones and carcass also cures most sniffles and is potently comforting when you’re feeling a wee bit sorry for yourself.

    Aye, there’s a lot to be said for a hen.

    1. James Mills says:

      Deliberately provocative ! living down to your pseudonym !

    2. SleepingDog says:

      I have just finished reading the chapter ‘Killer Wales’ in Norman Baker’s And What Do You Do? What the Royal Family Don’t Want You to Know (2020). It starts with a bird massacre:
      p291 “On one day in 1913, George V and his party shot and killed 3,937 birds. The King himself accounted for 1,000 pheasants in just six hours, or almost three a minute.”
      Shotguns not machine-guns, for fun not the pot (most carcasses left to rot).
      “The lust for blood sports had always been an integral part of royalty in this country, and present incumbents are just as keen as their forebears in centuries past.” The Tudor War on Nature rages on, then.

      p294 “Prince Philip can make the dubious claim of having killed more living creatures than any other royal alive. One estimate in 1996 reckoned that in the previous thirty years he had shot at least 30,000 pheasants” among many other animals, some from endangered species.
      p296 “Philip made sure he introduced Prince Charles to shooting when he was just eight years old, keen to instil macho activities in the thoughtful boy.” who killed his first grouse at nine. And later unconstitutionally attempted to persuade Labour government to drop its abolition of fox hunting.

      The Queen would shoot grouse and wring necks of injured birds. Diana apparently tired of slaughter and nicknamed Charles and their tradition-following boys ‘Killer Wales’. In 2007 Harry was questioned by police over shooting of 2 endangered hen harriers. Apparently even a pandemic and public disapproval hardly slowed down the royal blood harvest:
      even as we are subjected to lecturers from royal patrons of ever-so-many wildlife organisations on protecting our fellow creatures. Protecting them from who? Such hypocrisy and cant is, you have to hand it to them, as British as apex nepotism and refusing to apologise for global crime sprees.

      I wonder in passing, when are all these environmentalists finally going to hand back their honours?

  2. MBC says:

    This is wonderful! Thank you!

  3. Kate Johnston says:

    Thank you Mike! I have been slightly more obsessive about birds over this period. Not obviously as obsessive as you but feel full of joy when notice a flash of colour and take the time to stop and stare.

    Keep up the good [email protected]

  4. Blair says:

    You can remember Michael Barnier saying that the UK will have a special place in Hell with BREXIT?

    “It seems like sound, like smell can evoke memories and transport us back away from all this hell.”

    It certainly is, Tony Blair achieved that 3 Decades previously by taking everyone on his 3rd Way without doing the will of God. With the Millennium Bug Jesus lost track of all his sheep! This is an alternative timeline, alternative facts explained


    Boris Johnson is the leader Today trying to get everyone out, through BREXIT. Once Lockdowns have been lifted, everyone will find themselves back on the real path in 1991.

    As spiritual beings our father in Heaven has been working to help everyone to their fullest potential. Everyone will be back in the air soon.

    “It’s funny that all that’s going to be destroyed as we all go back to ‘flying’”

    Everybody just wait Boris. It’s no accident that Donald J. Trump has taken more interest in Scotland.

    Bee Lucky, the birds are watching!

  5. Carol says:

    “Small is beautiful”!
    Yes, as I have said before, you’re good. Thank you for this (much appreciated) read.

  6. Elaine Fraser says:

    “gender -focus ” my arse

  7. Mark Bevis says:

    As we say in the doomosphere, enjoy it whilst you still you can!

    At the current rates of extinction, if they are exponential, then there will be no wildlife to enjoy after 2026. If they are linear, then I’d estimate after 2048.

    But regardless of the science, I’ll add my little experiences. We’ve been carrying on with the local Incredible Edible project all through the lockdowns, and it’s remarkable how close the robins will get as we occasionally disturb the soil. Even with us using no-till methods, they are adept at finding the worms as close as one foot away, if you stop and watch for a moment. Always a great moment!

    There’s the old wives’ tale about robins being sprits of decease relatives following you around, but in fact it stems from robins following humans with ploughs, turning over the soil, giving them easy access to worms. So robins follow humans around, hoping they’ll dig up the ground. And where did they learn that habit ? From following the wild boar rummaging for truffles. Where boar have been reintroduced in the UK, the robins have reverted to their ancestral memory and start following them around, even hundreds of years after their disappearance from the wild. Just goes to show nature is a remarkable thing.

    And down at my own allotment, it backs onto a wood, so it’s great at times to just sit and wait, to see what passes by. Heard a woodpecker t’other day, have seen nuthatches and jays – hearing a thrush sing is a rare event nowadays – and flocks of long-tailed tits flitting by is always a great joy, giving an impression that nature is still abundant. And do wrens have the highest noise to weight ratio of any bird? They’re loud for their size thats for sure.

    One of our biggest gripe about lockdowns has been being prevented from getting to Brockholes and Leighton Moss and other bird sanctuaries to do a few hours bird watching. Leighton Moss, where the robins will land on your hand to feed. The same Leighton Moss that will disappear as a fresh water reed habitat as the sea levels rise, but may become an isolated salt marsh instead, inaccessible by car. That knowledge of loss I have to keep to myself and shove to the back of my mind, but then there is forlorn hope that some other species will benefit from the change that is coming.

    The local canal has been a supplement to our bird watching, the moorhens and coots seem to be in population overshoot, and we’re now getting merganser ducks that we didn’t get before the pandemic. Could be just coincidence, or maybe I’ve just noticed more, like many other people.

    The starling murmurations are a sad parody of their former glory, in terms of numbers, and we no longer get huge flocks of lapwings on the moors above town that we had when I was a kid in the 1970s, so the reminders of the annihaliation of nature are constantly around us. The lapwing is one of my favourite birds, with it’s remarkable call. To me, the demise of the lapwing falls in step with the demise of the human race as a moral entity.

    But at that one moment, when you stop, watch and listen, you forget all that, and just enjoy the moment. That feels more real, more connected, than any internet connection or any 48″ screen.

    And saying all this, it doesn’t at first seem important enough to want to relay it to other humans, but in retrospect, is it the most important thing to say?

    So thankyou Mike for the opportunity for this ramble!

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