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22 July 2020

Summer reflection: Call of the flycatcher

These are not eye-catching creatures. Field guides often describe them as “undistinguished”. But, in this unfamiliar and far from reassuring world, discovering a flycatcher in my garden has brought me great delight.

By Helen Macdonald

This summer, reorganising cupboards, washing walls, and laundering clothes have sometimes let me forget what is going on, for I learned long ago that compulsive housework can distract one from grief. But most days there’s a dull ache in my chest and not just because of the ever-climbing death toll. Day by day, watching jobs ­vanish, theatres close, lockdown crumble, the new shape of the world is being revealed to us. It is far from reassuring.

A while ago I sat myself down on the path outside my front door with a blunt knife and started extracting weed roots from between the bricks. Predictably, I soon scraped my knuckles raw. Cursing, I raised them to my mouth, and as I held them there I realised the entire time I’d been weeding I’d been hearing a high-pitched noise that hadn’t quite penetrated into conscious awareness. It was a thin seeep, repeated as consistently and eerily as the beeping Quindar tone on Nasa Apollo transmissions.

Looking around to find the source, I thought, could that be what I think it is? To my delight, it was. Perched on a telephone wire above me was a small bird with a high forehead and a narrow beak, and as I looked, the beak opened and sent again that hair-fine note out into the humid air. It was a spotted flycatcher.

These are not eye-catching creatures. Field guides often describe them as “undistinguished”. They resemble grey-brown, streaky robins, with a similarly dark, predatory eye, open face and upright stance. This one must have been here for weeks, and I wondered if I’d failed to notice it simply ­because I had not expected it to be there.

Twenty years ago, I could count three pairs in my parents’ small Hampshire village, one of which hawked flies in little aerial sallies from its habitual perch on their washing line, and I’m sure there were more. Unobtrusive denizens of shrubby gardens, orchards and churchyards, they are one of the last long-distance migrants to ­arrive here in spring from Africa, and I have ­always felt a little as if they bring summer with them.

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Back when I was a student I rented a room in a house with a grapevine coiled up around the front door that every summer held a flycatcher nest (vegetation growing against sheds, fences and houses is a ­favourite place for the species to build). Our birds became so tame that one afternoon I distracted a ­local Conservative canvasser by pointing out a parent flying in to feed its near-fledged chicks. He was delighted; we talked animatedly about flycatchers for a while before I thanked him and went back into the house, seeing his face fall with the realisation, as the door closed, that he had not discussed my vote at all.

But since then their numbers have ­nosedived. Over the past quarter-century, more than 80 per cent have vanished from England. The sight of the bird on the wire above me is not ­normal any more.

Looking at it, at a time where the very notion of normality is undergoing fierce renegotiation, brought home to me that the story of disappearing wildlife has been such a familiar part of my life that I have almost begun to believe that it is simply the way the world works, with biodiversity loss as ­natural a consequence of the passing of time as wrinkles and silvering hair. Of course, this is a dangerous lie.

So there I was, kneeling on the bricks under a singing flycatcher. I wanted to write about it. But why? Since Covid, writing about wild creatures has felt at best an ­irrelevancy, at worst fiddling while Rome burns. I watched the bird for a while, my weeding forgotten. I saw it flit down to the tangled space of stems along the fence between my garden and the next. That must be where it has a nest, I thought, and felt a fierce burst of protectiveness. What could I do, I thought, to help make sure this pair raises its young in safety? Very little, for what threatens them is not amenable to the kind of protection I can provide.

There is not much I can do to fix the ­population crash of the flying insects they eat, the degradation of the habitats they require, or make much difference to the ever-accelerating changes in the complex systems of global climate.

Appealing to individual ­responsibility is one way that vested interests dodge the threat of large-scale systemic change. It’s how we have come to believe that by eschewing plastic straws we might solve plastic pollution, that driving a little less often is a way to stop climate change; that the need for radical shifts in the workings of the global economy is not something we need consider. I’ve watched the same manoeuvre work its deft magic over the past few weeks, as lockdown is lifted, and the responsibility for our health ­quietly transferred from the strategic ­workings of government to a vague notion of “common sense”.

But over the past few weeks, I’ve also seen the crowds on the streets, watched statues topple, felt the scorching rightness and power of their demands, and known I should have been out there, not stuck on my own at home. I’d believed for years that everyone drifted rightward on the political spectrum as they aged; I thought this was merely a fact of life. Now, I know that to be another dangerous lie – and know too that collective action is a different, more powerful form of common sense, the means by which we might move towards a place of greater safety.

Today, the pubs are open, the cinemas are open, and my young flycatchers have left their nest. Outside, four chicks are chasing each other around my garden, their ­parents in attendance. It feels a very small victory against the dissolution of a world once ­familiar, but it is something. I am ­praying, almost against hope, they will return and grace this place next year. 

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This article appears in the 22 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special