Most mornings in spring, says Mark Cocker in The Guardian, I listen for the mistle thrush that sings from the ash tree above my Buxton home. There’s a joy in knowing his song “unites with tens of millions of other dawn birds” – from the blue tits of the inner cities to the chaffinches and wrens of the remotest Scottish glens – “unfolding across all Britain to all people”. It’s as though the Earth is “rejoicing at the sun’s cyclical return”. But this “collective performance” is getting quieter. Largely thanks to habitat loss, bird numbers are on a “dangerous downward trajectory”. The avian population has fallen by 40 million in the UK since 1970; by 600 million in Europe since 1980; and by a staggering three billion in North America over the past 50 years, almost a third of the continent’s birds.
These losses are “crushing”. First off, there are devastating ecological consequences. Birds perform an “infallible service” to a whole network of life: bacteria, insects, fungi, mosses, flowers, trees, amphibians, reptiles, molluscs and mammals all rely on the presence of our “avian neighbours”. Then there’s the “cultural impoverishment”. Imagine music without Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending, poetry without John Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale, or literature without JA Baker’s The Peregrine. Aldous Huxley once suggested if you took birds out of the English poetic canon, “you would have to lose half the nation’s verse”. He’d now have cause to “look up, listen, and be very concerned”.