Commentary: The Sound of Silence? COVID is for the birds – and that’s a song of joy

Commentary: The Sound of Silence? COVID is for the birds - and that’s a song of joy
Ann Young
Goslings are seen in a grassy field near Swan Lake in May 2020.

I call it the COVID cacophony.

Suddenly the birds are singing more loudly. The dawn chorus of birdsong fills the air outside and though I can’t tell a robin’s song from a chickadee’s. The lockdown has brought a wondrous array of whistling and chuttering and sing-song noises.

The reduction of traffic and aircraft has meant ambient noise is significantly lower and birdsong is more audible and noticeable, according to people who measure sound.

“The reduction in traffic volume of 90 per cent would lead to a 10-decibel reduction in noise level, which is significant – roughly a perceived halving in subjective loudness,” Reuben Peckham, company director of ‘24 Acoustics’ told London’s Daily Mail.

Certainly, birdsong is much louder here on the Saanich Peninsula, where small planes and large aircraft buzz over Sidney and make even talking difficult at times. Shouting is often the order of the day.

I can even hear the hummingbirds in our garden as they whirr past me en-route to sugary drinks.

I told a friend how wonderful it was to hear all the birdsong and he said yes, that was all very fine, but most of the time he heard crows. And they were getting louder too.

It is the heat of the breeding season right now, so the birds are particularly vocal. Even the eagles, which have the most disappointingly pathetic sound of all the birds, are making loud whoopee.

Birdsong is one of the pleasures of spring and summer, but I confess that I wish I’d learned more about the songs of individual birds. I’m good at woodpeckers – when they peck trees, that is, but I guess that doesn’t count. And owls. And pigeons.  And loons. I’m pretty good at ducks too. And can do a passable imitation of Donald Duck for my grandchildren. But most of the time the songbirds are anonymous.

My cousin is a birder and can recognize the calls of hawks and warblers and blackbirds and just about every other bird within earshot. It’s a joy going on an evening walk with him near his home because he’ll hear the bird, then track it down with his binoculars, and he’ll break down the sound so you can recognize it easily. “Just wait for that chatter-chatter-wheeeeeh and then the tack-tack” he’ll say, and I do and then instantly forget it. A lesser spotted something or other.

Birders are a special breed. They will hike over hill and dale and through mud and dirt to find a bird that has somehow strayed off course, and when they see the rare delight they derive intense pleasure from a brief sighting. I was biking to Island View beach once, and a number of birders were armed with binoculars and cameras trying to find a rare bird that had been spotted in a field just off Highway 17. I think it was normally only found in Japan, but I might have got that wrong. When it comes to birds, I usually do.

The BBC, every morning, does a tweet of the day in which it plays the sound of one particular bird.

And many websites have birdsong identifiers. There’s even a radio station that you can listen to if you want to be de-stressed and calm, and even birdsong meditation sites.

I used to curse when the dawn chorus would wake me on a summer’s dawn, way too early, and then became transfixed. Now, it’s fun sitting in my back yard, even mid-afternoon,  listening to the cacophony…..and just as I wrote that preceding line a small plane flew near my house. And the birds went silent.

Noise is something we all live with, in our normal worlds. There’s always a distant burr of a motor or some industrial noise, or an aircraft somewhere. Or tractors here on the peninsula. Noise is everywhere. Well, almost. Last spring my wife and I went kayaking in Haida Gwaii when we stopped for a snack in our kayaks well away from civilization.

“Listen,” I said. “Nothing.” There was absolutely no ambient sound. It was almost eerie but remarkable. It stayed like that for about five minutes until a songbird broke the wondrous silence.

It’s not all peace and quiet during the lockdown. People working from home have suddenly decided their lawns need mowing more than once a week with loud gas mowers, and many have rediscovered the joys of power-washing and leaf-blowing and home renovation, where drilling and hammering loudly are the order of the COVID day.

The children are at home too, and they are laughing and squealing and enjoying whatever freedom their yards bring, and that’s a good noise.

As I write this, the plane has now disappeared and birdsong has resumed through the window. It’s a fragile joy, but it reminds us we are never far from nature. We can hear into the distance, as one wildlife expert once said. And how wonderful is that?

Ian Haysom’s coronavirus diary will appear here regularly.

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