Look up, listen, and be very concerned. Birds are vanishing – and their crisis is our crisis

Mark Cocker

Have we time enough and opportunity, we can attune ourselves to one of the greatest events of every April morning on our planet, since birdsong unfolds across all Eurasia and North America as daylight processes over those lands too. Think of it as the Earth rejoicing at the sun’s cyclical return.

Mistle thrush in Warwickshire. Photograph: Mike Lane/Alamy

The global chorus may unite us in planetary ritual but increasingly, as underlined by a recent report, there are more and more gaps in the avian responses to this daily passage. Both in the long and short term, Britain’s birds are now shown to be on a dangerous downward trajectory.

The UK has lost 40m birds since 1970 and Europe as a whole has lost 600m birds since 1980. The British figures, especially for farmland species such as skylark and lapwing, have long been the worst of any country in the region. The North American continent, meanwhile, but especially the US, has seen avian populations fall by almost a third since 1970, losing a cumulative 3bn birds.

What is at stake is not simply some aesthetic thrill or existential reassurance which we have long vested in our avian neighbours, although the prospect of these losses alone is crushing. Aldous Huxley once suggested that if you took birds out of the English poetic canon you would have to lose half the nation’s verse.

We have yet truly to understand how much environmental loss is also cultural impoverishment, but the lesson is now among us. Imagine the arts without the following: music without Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, ballet without Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, poetry without Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale, literature without JA Baker’s The Peregrine….