Sunday morning, London, 11th April. I awoke to the impossibly exotic sound of a bird which has no place in this city, making a plaintive call:
“cho – cho – cho – cho – cho – cho – cho – cho – cho – cho – cho – cho – cho – ”
This is the second time that sound, which has no right to be here, has woken me up not through volume or discord, but through strangeness.
It needs a lake, I thought, brain not yet out of sleep, to echo hauntingly across like a whippoorwhil, although the huge brick walls of the church opposite, the houses, this four storey block and thirty eight soaring London plane trees make a decent urban reverb replacement.
I don’t mind the noise, it’s just that after a quarter century, I read my city audio like a familiar book. Too old and well-read to keep its spine together, pages have slipped out, and someone has rudely sellotaped in some new leaves.
Birds have a tough time here in London, as human beings carry on with civilisation as if it matters, despite the fact our very obsession with terraforming the planet for the benefit of prams is wiping out habitat for all other life forms.
Over the last few months, there have been extensive groundworks in the park opposite, and this year I have really missed the usual announcement of spring, the blackbirds, whose songs maintain over years, pass down through generations, and develop over time. Scary bushes (which might hide junkies and paedophiles, but don’t) have been removed, revealing mud, and along with this nature-loving undergrowth, half a dozen nests have disappeared.
The first quarter of each year I listen intently to the calls, noticing the quirks and differences, recognising individual songs, and even occasionally, criticising them. Blackbirds absorb all kinds of sounds into their songs – car alarms, human whistles, metallic creaks. This mimicry endears them to me immensely – they are feathery recorders of our environment. The birds sing until early summer, then stop. Just like people, they party less with children to look after.
So the blackbirds are gone from here, but they have not gone far. Like ecological migrants everywhere, they have moved on to different trees and gardens. Walking south down Liverpool Road towards the Angel, I hear and recognise the calls of some blackbirds which I know. I found some of them in Furlong Road, where Boris Johnson used to live before he moved to the Mayor’s Golden Palace. Made homeless by Islington Council, and sensing the lack of blond threat, Mr and Mrs Blackbird are singing loud and long, even above the traffic.
I still don’t know the name of the strange bird that has woken me twice. Unlike the blackbirds, who find a resonant perch and hold forth for fifteen minutes at a time, it prefers to announce itself with one long twenty second phrase, then shut its beak and disappear. By the time it feels brave enough to show itself, my own song will have moved out on from this city, and someone else will be singing in my place.