The Silence Of The Birds

by A.Coffey, UK.

They said it would happen.  It was the song-thrushes first. One day, they just weren’t there any more. Their melodic warbling had faded from people’s memories, including Emily’s, as she looked out of her window, wondering when she had last seen the speckle-chested visitor. Then she began to realise that she hadn’t seen the green woodpecker for a few years, either. It had been a regular visitor to her suburban garden.  With its red hat and its bright green and white coat it would peck around the lawn like a clown looking for new jokes.  A while ago, she had heard that the tree sparrow population had declined by over ninety percent the previous year. No wonder she had almost forgotten what they looked like, with their chestnut, white and black colouring and perky little tails.  Perhaps she should have taken more notice of their gradual disappearance, but life was so busy nowadays.  She was out at work all week and socialising at the weekends. Besides, she thought to herself, wasn’t that why the environmental and wildlife charities existed – surely they were taking care of the planet and all the living creatures on it? She hadn’t bothered joining any of the charities, even the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, despite her interest in birds, but she was beginning to wonder if she should have done. Like so many of her friends, she had grown up accepting that she had to get a job and make a living. That had been her priority and although she had always loved birds, it hadn’t occurred to her that they might need her help.

When she was younger, listening to birdsong was like having a hug from a friend: it was one of the most uplifting and delightful things she knew. Her parents would take her out for walks in the countryside every weekend and it was a joy to hear the different chirrups, trills and calls of all types of birds. She had fun trying to identify them by their songs. Her favourite was the skylark – she remembered lying on her back on a grassy hillside with the summer sun on her face, watching through half-closed eyes a skylark high up in the cloudless sky, its beautiful song like a cascade of silver lace. How excited she had been one holiday when she had seen a dipper dive into a river and stay underwater for quite a while – she had surprised her friends at school by telling them of how dippers walk along riverbeds to feed. On a walk in the nearby woods, she had stopped suddenly to watch quietly as a treecreeper  showed how it got its name. Birds were such entertaining and fascinating creatures and they had always just been there, going about their business, as Emily went about hers.

Emily’s grandfather had given her a bird book and she loved visually identifying any new birds she saw. How delighted she had been to find out that the flock of tiny, prettily-coloured birds which had descended on a garden shrub one day were goldfinches. But now she was worried that all the many varieties she had yet to see would be just pictures in her book. It seemed that she had as much chance of spotting a chiffchaff as seeing a dodo. She had never seen a cuckoo, but she was very familiar with its call in the spring, echoing across the fields from the woods. That was another sound she realised she had not heard for the last few years.  Since she had left home, she had not had as much time to extend her ornithological interests but she still used to enjoy hearing the dawn chorus. It was a summer morning cacophony of joie de vivre, a choir of individuals all trying to outdo each other in volume and variety, waking her up way too early. What had happened? There WAS no dawn chorus and hadn’t been since the beginning of the summer. How could she not have noticed?

Maybe it was something to do with the disappearance of the insects that formed the diet of some birds, Emily thought. She had heard people expressing pleasure at the lack of the usual wasp problem at picnics and barbeques but maybe that wasn’t such a good thing after all. There had been no May bugs clattering around, and no butterflies for ages either. Emily quickly searched the internet and found that insect species were becoming extinct at an alarming rate. Even ladybirds were under threat, and they were good at pest control. Bees, especially, were in danger and she knew how important they were for pollinating food sources. Like a tidal wave, horrific thoughts came crashing through her mind. If bees disappeared, how could food be grown? What would people eat?

Emily sat down, a creeping tide of fear and alarm turning her skin cold.  Elsewhere, there was rising panic, as all over the world more and more people reported a rapid decline or disappearance of birds of all species. What had begun insidiously had apparently accelerated over the last few months. In the UK, farmers were reporting the disappearance of corn buntings, birds they were used to seeing perched on fence-posts; dumpy little birds with a high-pitched trilling song, a noticeably sweet contrast to the tractor’s roar. And in the winter, farmers were also noticing the lack of lapwing flocks, an image which was often captured in paintings of the British countryside. The starling species had previously declined by well over half and although there were plenty of video clips on YouTube of beautiful starling murmurations, it hadn’t dawned on people that many of the clips were over a year old.  Even the black and white magpies – harbingers of sorrow if seen singly, joy in pairs – were no longer to be seen scavenging off roadkill.

Willow-tits, turtle doves, woodcocks, lapwings and her favourite, the skylark, all appeared to have vanished. But it wasn’t just the farmland species: woodland birds such as bluetits,  bullfinches, pied flycatchers, willow warblers and lesser spotted woodpeckers had also gone, like visitors deciding they haven’t been appreciated and quietly leaving. Gardens had become ominously quiet. In urban areas, where ubiquitous house-sparrows used to dominate, they appeared to be the last to go: there had been no sightings of that cheeky little fellow for quite a while. Reminders of bold robins, so familiar to gardeners, would be preserved only on Christmas cards in the future.

Emily felt guilty. Why hadn’t she noticed sooner? Could she have done something to help? If there was a massive decline in the insect population, maybe that meant there wasn’t as much food for the birds. She suddenly had a memory of her father’s car being covered in squashed insects when they went for long drives in the summers of her childhood. Yet her own car had been bug-free for the last few summers. It hadn’t occurred to her that it might be a warning sign. Someone on television had reported that modern farming practices and using pesticides on fields could affect insect and bird populations. Wasn’t that the responsibility of the farmers? After all, everyone had to eat, although she did wonder if it was really necessary to spray everything with chemicals. Who knows what long-term effects that might be having. Emily felt another pang of guilt: perhaps she had relied too much on others to keep a watchful eye on the environment. She had expected the government to be aware of what was happening to the countryside and the wildlife and to take responsibility for protecting it but she now saw that it had been naiïve of her. One thing she would do immediately was to buy some wildflower seeds and sow them in her garden. She knew that insects loved them and if she could encourage some insects maybe that would help a few birds.

Her mind was a flurry of thoughts as she sat staring out of the window. From her searches on the internet, she learned that if the birds became extinct, there would be no creatures to disperse seeds, pollinate flowers or fertilise the ground the way they used to, or provide food for foxes and other animals. Who or what would eat the slugs and insects and pests on farms? And if the insects had gone, what would happen to the eco-system? Surely the birds and insects couldn’t all just disappear – could they? It was frightening to think that there might never again be birds in woodland, farmland, heathland, gardens, on the coast or in the sky.  Emily went outside with a sinking feeling and stood in the garden, listening to the unnatural silence.

While she stood there imagining the chaos that could ensue as the whole eco-system began to collapse, a sense of urgency grew in her. It dawned on her that everyone, not just the environmental charities, needed to act before it was too late, and that included her family, friends, neighbours, the government, everybody. That was it – she would become an eco-warrior. Emily felt galvanised into action and ran back into the house. From now on, she would find out everything she could about why the birds were disappearing and do her utmost to prevent any further extinctions.  After all, if the birds and insects became extinct, it was very likely that humans would too, and that didn’t bear thinking about.

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