Photo by Michelle Mendieta Mean.
People don’t look up enough. They don’t stop enough. They certainly don’t listen enough. Apologies if this stop, look and listen stuff sounds like those primary school crossing-the-road lessons, but I stick by the important message of those words, albeit in a quite different context.
In Oxford especially it’s important to stop, look and listen – life here is (at least for me, a country bumpkin as one of my friends calls me) always a rush – people always have things to do and places to be. They put their head down, earphones in, and charge forward, shuttling from point A to point B like a train on the Underground.
Besides the birds, which I’ll come to in a bit, Oxford is surely the city that should demand of its inhabitants that they look up – the dreaming spires of every college, church, and library are there to be marvelled at not just by tourists but the rest of us who live here.
The listening part can be somewhat harder – at least where I am, in the centre of Oxford, there isn’t ever an hour of real silence. When I say silence, what I mean is the absence of human-noise – cars, music, pubs, people.
It is this quiet – the one filled by birdsong and rustling trees – that I miss most when I’m in Oxford. The ever-present screech of red kites as they soar high and mighty above the Chilterns, the crowing of – you guessed it – crows, as they boldly take on the kites in a battle they’re bound to lose, the swish of a ‘screaming party’ of swifts on the lookout for food, always on the wing.
On that last note, let us canter back to Monday evening, an hour before dusk; off I go into the Oxford night, stopping, looking and listening for a bird which, to cut a not-very-long story short, I don’t end up seeing!
The swift is, by all accounts, a beautiful and incredible bird. In April/May it travels 7,000 miles from its winter home in sub-Saharan Africa to the UK to breed, where it stays until late summer, at which point it makes the return journey. During all of this, the swift never lands except to nest – indeed, if you see what you think is a swift on a telephone line, then it’s not a swift – most likely a swallow. This bird, which weighs no more than a crème egg, eats, drinks, and is even able to mate and sleep on the wing! Moreover, the swift is alongside the hummingbird in being the only bird species to be able to control its temperature and become ‘torpid’ each night – saving energy when food is scarce.
Due to a reduction in nesting sites, declining insect numbers and climate change, the UK swift population has plummeted by 53% between 1995 and 2016. As a result, these acrobatic wonders of our skies are now at serious danger of becoming an ever-rarer species, even in places such as Oxford, where swift surveying has been conducted for decades.
Each year the RSPB organises a swift survey, where members of the public are designated squares on a map and go out every so often around their patch to find nesting swifts – my ‘patch’ is right in the centre of Oxford, covering Broad Street, St. Aldates, Cornmarket Street and the Turl. Walking around these streets before dusk with the goal of seeing low-flying swift parties gave me the license to stop, look, and listen, in places where I’m usually in a rush.
When you’re focused on something completely different to what’s normally going through your mind, you see the place in a totally different way – looking up at the tops of buildings, I could appreciate the statues and gargoyles and grotesques. Even in the city centre, I could go down Market Street and hear the chirping of blackbirds and the clicking of starlings in the horse chestnut trees which, at this time of year, are in their fullest, greenest splendour.
Even though I didn’t spot any swifts on my walk, that’s all part of surveying, and anyway, it’s still early days – plenty more of those walks to come! Often, it’s the case that swifts pop up when you’re not looking for them, as was the case when I was heading down to Cowley last week and four swifts swooshed past the houses in front of me. It was my first sighting of swifts this year, and I must have been quite an odd sight, stood there in the rain, laughing at myself for getting so excited about seeing swifts.
Yet, even though swifts are undeniably brilliant, nothing compares to hearing the screech of red kites. Whilst there are quite a few kites in Oxford, their numbers are nothing like in rural Oxfordshire where I’m from. Every day I would sit at my desk and watch the kites swirl around high up in the sky, and so each time I here that iconic screech in Oxford, that above all else, reminds me of home.
The other day I was stood in Radcliffe Square and, to my delight, a kite and crow were battling it out. I really don’t know why crows think they can get the better of kites, but nonetheless, it makes for an entertaining spectacle. Crows too, of course, have a unique and piercing call, another familiar sound of home.
Even with the rush and noise of Oxford, if I just stop for a moment, the sights and sounds I am used to will soon show themselves to have been right there all along, if only I’d taken time to notice them.
We should all make time to stop, look and listen, for, as W.H. Davies writes, “A poor life this if, full of care/We have no time to stand and stare.”
For me, the swift survey has helped to remind me of why I spend hours in meetings, why I spend so much of my time writing and reading about the climate and ecological challenges we face and the solutions to them: because the beauty and value of birds like swifts, the screeches of kites, provide solace, wonder and joy in ways that only the natural world can, and to lose these wonders would be to lose ourselves.
ACTION: First off, stop, look and listen (I would be sorry for the repetition of this if it weren’t such an important message!) – whether that be on a street or in a park, there will always be sounds and calls to hear. Second, if you do see any swifts flying around, especially if they’re flying close to houses or the roofs of buildings, click on this link to map swift nests, or alternatively, let me know where you saw them and I’ll put the data up on the map! Sightings of swifts are crucial to gauge their numbers, and thus to spur actions such as the installation of swift bricks and nesting holes in our towns and cities.