The songbirds are falling silent in Britain and the eerie quietness descending on the woods and fields carries a grim portent for what could happen here if we do not take care of our environment.
A recent census of birds in Britain revealed that songbirds especially were vanishing from the landscape in unprecedented numbers and the loss is being lamented as a tragedy for not just Britain’s natural world but for its culture.
The British Trust for Ornithology says, if current population trends continue, it is highly likely that some of the nation’s most familiar birds – including the robin of Christmas card fame – will not just decline in numbers, but may disappear from Britain altogether.
The census was compiled from the efforts of more than 40,000 amateur birdwatchers, who have provided almost 20 million records of nearly 300 bird species for the mammoth Bird Atlas survey, the British version of one produced in Australia which also shows dramatic decline in bird numbers and variety.
Among vanishing species in Britain is the turtle dove, and it is predicted this beautiful summer visitor could become extinct as a British breeding bird within 10 years. Having declined by 90 per cent since the 1970s, the species is presently in freefall.
Turtle doves have suffered from a triple whammy: intensive farming methods, which have drastically reduced their available food supply of weed seeds; drought on their wintering grounds in Africa; and the shooting of migratory birds as they pass over the Mediterranean region.
The likely fate of the turtle dove is not just a tragedy for the environment, but for Britain’s culture, too. The Song of Solomon in the Bible mentions the species: “The time of the singing of the birds is come. And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.”
The bird’s unusual name refers to its “tur-tur” call which was once a classic sound of summertime in rural Britain.
The skylark is another bird more famous for its song than its appearance. Skylarks – introduced to Tasmania in Victorian times and a familiar sight in country districts here – may be smallish, nondescript brown birds but when they take to the air, they are transformed, hanging in the blue summer skies and delivering an extraordinary song.
Poets and composers have long been mesmerised by the skylark’s song, including Shelley, whose Ode to a Skylark opens with: “Hail to thee, blithe spirit! / Bird thou never wert …”
Another celebration of the skylark’s song was originally written as a poem, The Lark Ascending by George Meredith, in the late 19th century. The composer Ralph Vaughan Williams took inspiration from Meredith in his musical version of the skylark’s song, also titled The Lark Ascending, first performed in 1920.
But according to the latest figures, this once-ubiquitous farmland bird’s population has declined by a third – some three-quarters of a million pairs – since 1986. As with the turtle dove, the move towards more intensive arable farming, with crops planted all year round, which reduces both food and nesting habitat for the skylark, is to blame.
The skylark is not the only bird whose sound has influenced generations of poets, writers and composers. Beethoven incorporated snatches of the cuckoo, quail and nightingale in his Pastoral Symphony, the 20th-centure French composer Oliver Messiaen went even further, using the sounds of species such as the golden oriole and woodlark in his musical works. Popular music has taken inspiration from birdsong, too, perhaps most famously in Paul McCartney’s Blackbird.
But of all Britain’s birds, one species dominates artistic culture: the nightingale.
Nightingales are summer visitors to Britain – from Africa like the turtle dove – but it is not farming practices, or drought, fuelling a collapse in numbers. In Britain the main culprit for their demise – numbers are down by 50 per cent – is the introduced muntjac deer, whose constant grazing has destroyed the wooded understorey where the nightingales nest.
It’s a familiar tale in Australia where introduced species are having an impact on native birds and animals, either preying on them directly, competing for food or stealing or destroying nest sites.