Friday 27 September 2019

Sounds of the Suburbs

The soundscape of suburbia has changed a lot in the course of my sentient years. More noise from cars, obviously, and planes (helicopters, too, around here), and things like electronic alarms and garden power tools that didn't even exist a few decades ago. Also the lack of whistling on the street, the clinking of milk bottles, the clop of horses' hooves... But equally striking – and, for the most part, equally deleterious – has been the change in the sounds of suburban nature. Those conquistador corvids now are everywhere, and their calls are far from melodious: the harsh cackles of magpies and jays, the raucous cawing of crows, the... actually I'll let the jackdaws off, I rather like their way of talking. All of these are birds that used to live in the country and rarely venture into town, but now they are dominant suburban species, and in terms of decibels exceeded only by the flocks of Ring Necked Parakeets that are constantly flying over, squawking at ear-splitting volume. These birds were, until quite recently, confined to a few colonies of escapees – or to the bird cages where they belong. Now they are everywhere, at least in southeast England. And another bird that in my boyhood was unheard of but is now ubiquitous, the Collared Dove, can hardly be commended for its (incongruously grating) call.  A good thing we still have the reliable cooing of wood pigeons all through the summer and beyond, and blackbirds singing beautifully into the evening. And one newcomer to suburbia, the now very abundant Goldfinch, makes a pretty, silvery sound.
  Overall, however, it's been a story of the loss of garden songbirds and their melodies – chaffinch, bullfinch, greenfinch, song thrush – and their replacement by cacophonous corvids and other makers of suburban noise. And what makes matters infinitely worse in my garden is the hideous din kicked up by those verminous tree rats we call Grey Squirrels. It took me a while to isolate this sound – I thought it was some peculiarly nasty variant of jackdaw or jay – but now I know: it's the 'squirrels' expressing their implacable aggression with their narrow but relentless, and relentlessly ugly, repertoire of angry chittering and furious repetitive scolding, on and on and on. If ever we needed another reason to hate these hugely destructive pests, here it is.
 But let's end on a positive note. A suburban bird we still have, thank heavens, is the swift (whose screaming call is not pretty, but has a rare evocative beauty all its own), and there's an excellent, and uncharacteristically short, piece on these wonderful birds in the London Review of Books. Here's the link... 

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