By the end of March 2020, the seemingly ceaseless world of humans had ground to a halt in almost every way you could think of, and in our millions, we stayed at home. Noise pollution all but vanished; and into this void, the birds sang.
Whilst many of us tried not to sag under the mental weight of what this meant for our livelihoods, our health and the safety of our families, there were a handful of keen birders and scientists who also realised what this could mean for the avian occupants of the world. As March gave way to April and the buds on trees unfurled their leaves, the animal world flourished. Dubbed “the Anthropause” to refer specifically to the slowing down of human activity alone, reports came in from all corners of the globe, of wildlife reclaiming the now silent high streets, empty airports and closed up harbours: coyotes strolled across Golden Gate Bridge, feral Kashmiri goats strutted through Welsh market towns, sea lions barked and grunted outside shuttered shops south of Buenos Aires, endangered rare river otters appeared in the ornamental lakes on the grounds of a Chilean university. And over the misty fields, across the blossoming orchards, high above the surging seas and in among the wild woodland groves, the birds were suddenly able to hear one another.
Reports came in from all corners of the globe, of wildlife reclaiming the now silent high streets.
You’ve changed your tune
Birds rely heavily on sound to survive. Breeding season is the loudest of all in bird terms, and in 2020, happily for them, this crucial time coincided with the exact moment our roads and skies fell silent. Studies showed that a 90% reduction in motor vehicle and air traffic resulted in a 10-decibel reduction in noise pollution. This relief in auditory assault meant that, as birds could hear each other more clearly, they actually didn’t have to sing as loud, could sing for longer, and more expressively.
Cast your mind back to the days when we used to go out and socialise (times that will return, don’t worry). If you started the evening with a few drinks and friends in a bar, you maybe then moved on to a busier venue, like a nightclub. Once through those doors, conversation usually stopped, limited as it would be to a few sharp bursts of yelling through cupped hands in people’s ears, often followed by vague smiling as they tried to work out what it was that you actually said.
That’s what breeding season has been like for birds since the 1950s.
Then along comes COVID-19, and someone has abruptly pulled the plug from the wall.
Community bird groups across the world have been reporting a huge uptick.
As most of the world reeled from lockdown, researchers of bird songs instantly knew they had the chance of a lifetime in their grasp, and they were quick to act. The superbly named behavioural ecologist Elizabeth Derryberry led a study to see how San Francisco’s ubiquitous white-throated sparrow adapted to life under lockdown. Using recordings taken from the same known breeding sites spanning years, her team found that with traffic noise pollution more than halved, the birds’ melodic trill could now be heard twice the distance than in previous years. Not only that, as less effort was needed to force out the call, the males were singing more softly, and without having to push all that air through tiny pipes to be heard, they were also able to lower their pitch. This meant that they could add more notes, have more of a range. The bar was suddenly raised, and competition between males was full-on: the songs became more and more elaborate, which in bird parlance means they were trying to out-sexy each other.
With restrictions in place and only our own neighbourhoods to explore, and with no need to sit in pre 9am traffic 5 days a week, thousands of us stepped out into our local surroundings, many of us for the first time ever, believe it or not. Despite the existential horror of the pandemic at large, that uniquely human survival mechanism of finding out what else there is to be thankful for kicked in. Of course, the natural world has been there all this time, but COVID-19 seemed to throw back the curtains and show us how close it really was after all. Instantly, it didn’t matter what time we went to look at it, because it never left. And it turned out we could not only see it, but hear it.
Dawning upon us
The Dawn Chorus happens every single day, naturally. But how many of us have been bothered to get up at that time just to listen to a bunch of birds wake up? Well, once an exercise reserved for diehard enthusiasts, community bird groups across the world have been reporting a huge uptick in numbers coming along for the aural show during the pandemic. A fantastic project has also taken flight in Germany, where a collaboration between the revered American bioacoustician Brian Krause and the BIOTOPIA museum in the foothills of Bavaria has given rise to DAWN CHORUS, a digital platform where, each May, you can upload your own recordings of the daily event, creating a “global sound map” of the phenomenon. This resource will be invaluable to scientists across the globe hoping to track changes in species numbers and territories with a view to shedding light on larger issues. Krause’s previous work recording soundscapes such as thunder over the sea has been embraced by folks all over the world either coming to grips with terminal illness or on the long road to recovery of some other ailment. There is little doubt that this project will serve the humble everyman among us, as well as the scrutinising scientist. Birdsong has already been successfully trialled as a prescription for the unwell in doctor’s practices on Shetland since 2017, and hopes that it will be rolled out across Scotland began in Edinburgh in November 2020.
Birdsong has already been successfully trialled as a prescription for the unwell.
Lockdown has made us question and try to understand a multitude of things, and there is no avoiding or ignoring the heart-wrenching effects the pandemic has had on so many of us across the world. But if there is one side-effect to our forced hiatus that should be applauded, it is that we are evidently more than capable of learning to listen to the world again, to see what it has to say, because if even the birds can be heard, who knows what else?