Saturday, 11 February 2012

Songs of Darkness

Blackbird singing in the dead of night...

This first line of Blackbird by The Beatles seems to lack some basic ornithological knowledge. Blackbirds aren't nocturnal...are they?

Well they're not really but I often hear them in the darkness on early mornings on my way to work, in fact they're often noisier than any other city sounds. This strange behaviour of singing at night isn't limited to just blackbirds either, robins are well known for it and other songbirds can be heard in urban areas if you listen hard enough in the hours before dawn.

It's thought that all this night time noise is because the birds are trying to avoid completing with rush hour traffic during their normal singing hours. The daytime racket humans make means that possible mates are unable to hear the serenades of birds and so they have adapted to sing when it's quieter. Another argument is that the birds are singing during the day and at night, they're just giving up on other activities such as feeding or preening to put effort into finding that all important mate.

They've changed their urban songs in other ways too. Several years ago it was found that birdsong across Europe was higher pitched when competing with the sounds of traffic in the background. So the effect we're having on our neighbours isn't just physical, such as creating huge "cliffs" (tower blocks) for birds of prey to nest on or removing important woodland for new builds but also environmental with sound and light pollution too. This is a great example of how even the smallest of actions (like driving to work), when done by large groups, can have a drastic affect on the wildlife and environment around us.

Wildlife has an effect on us too of course. One of my very early blogs was about how good for you a walk in the country or near some tree or green space can be. It's true and whenever I'm feeling fed up a walk will almost always cure most of my bad moods. Birdsong in particular turns up again and again in our culture, in poetry, stories, folklore and of course song. But does it give us anything other than occasional creative inspiration?

A new study by the University of Surrey's Department of Psychology plans to spend three years looking at the impact of birdsong on behaviour and the brain. There's lots of anecdotal evidence to show that birdsong lifts our moods and helps us to link memories and places but this study should be able to give us some more concrete scientific data on the subject and perhaps open new doors into treatments of mental illness and health benefits. Just another reason why protecting out wildlife is so important, we don't know what good it's doing us yet!

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