Richard Smyth: The original tweeters — how London’s birds fill the city with music

Richard Smyth

“...When you turned and smiled at me/ A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square…”

Except that it didn’t, of course. That whole song is a tissue of fabrications. It’s a very long time since a nightingale sang anywhere in central London — nearly 200 years since John Keats heard his famous “light-winged Dryad of the tree” singing from beneath a plum tree in Hampstead, and almost certainly longer than that since any nightingale carolled in earnest in the precincts of W1.

But there’s more to birdsong than nightingales. If you do tumble out of The Ritz in the early hours, you may still hear a rich and melodious song rippling from a branch or lamp-post-top. People might even tell you it’s a nightingale (the poet John Clare wrote in the 1820s that “Londoners fancy every bird they hear after sunset a nightingale”) but they’ll be mistaken — it will be a robin.

Robins sing through all four seasons — give or take a few weeks of embarrassed silence in midsummer while the birds moult — and often around the clock, too. This is particularly the case in cities like London, where the blaze of electric lighting seldom dims: robins are highly photo-sensitive, and can be as readily triggered into song by streetlights as by the first light of dawn. It is, in any case, a terrific song, an elegantly phrased medley of too-whees and toodle-oodle-oos.

Birdsong gets everywhere. At this time of year you can hear blackcaps in Battersea Park and willow warblers in Wormwood Scrubs. London birding expert David Darrell-Lambert recommends an early start to catch the “explosion” of song at first light, around an hour before sunrise: “If you go when the sun is up already it’s a fraction of the quantity and quality,” he says.

It’s not only in London’s green spaces that it’s worth uncorking your ears and tuning in to what the birds are saying. Black redstarts — dusky, robin-like birds that have been nesting in the city’s bomb sites and derelict industrial hulks since the Second World War — can be heard repeating an insistent tweet from rooftops throughout the City. Urban areas like London can be difficult for birds, of course. Many can’t cope with the dirt, the noise, the onward march of steel and glass and concrete. A lucky few, though, are able to adapt. Some London birds begin singing earlier in the day than they usually would, in order to beat the traffic and get in ahead of rush hour.

London once loved its city birds — and not just the poor captive finches whose cages used to be stacked high on Sclater Street in Shoreditch to supply the “bird fancying” trade. Working-class Londoners used to gather in Hyde Park to feed the sparrows. These scrappy little birds, long in decline, may be making a comeback; a chirruping colony — sounding like a Commons debate wound up in pitch to a half-dozen kilohertz — has now found a home in the Tower of London.

Compared with the racket of traffic, trade and industry, birdsong is a quiet note in London’s non-stop symphony. Quiet, but persistent. It belongs here, just as much as it does in the woods and hedgerows of leafier districts — and it’s worth listening out for.

  • Richard Smyth’s book A Sweet, Wild Note: What We Hear When the Birds Sing is published on April 13 by Elliott & Thompson