The New Silent Spring: What is causing the strange disappearance of our songbirds?
I lost a songbird this spring. I had lived with it for more than ten years, near my home in rural Bedfordshire, 50 miles north of London. I had come to count on its unusual song from early each year, a sound rather like the reverberation of pebbles, issuing from its position high up on telephone wires over a remnant of pasture on the edge of the village. The bird was a humble corn bunting, a species quite easy to overlook, but a delight to hear, when the ear is attuned. I felt privileged still to have it close by. This, after all, is a species that has steadily dwindled and retreated from the agricultural landscape of lowland Britain since the 1960s, disappearing altogether from Wales and Northern Ireland in recent years.
The corn bunting population stays with us year round in Britain. The birds gather in post-breeding flocks in autumn and winter to forage on any spilled grain and wildflower seeds. But it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to find this type of basic food in our agricultural landscape in winter because of changes in farming practice, linked partly - but by no means entirely - to agrochemical use.
I can hear another, more celebrated songbird near my home. As a migrant insectivore, this bird tells a different but closely related story of loss. It is the nightingale and its continued presence and apparent success close to where I live does not reflect the calamity that has befallen it elsewhere. The nightingale, with its fabled, explosively defiant nocturnal warbling, is in retreat. It is following a pattern long established by our farm-dependent wild birds, and now seemingly mirrored by our African migrants adapted to life breeding in woods and parkland.