Aural Tonic


For someone who likes running, living in a city is not ideal. The air quality often poor and the noise of human activity all around is a distraction from the calming rhythms of exercise. Like many other runners, I have dealt with these issues as best I can – by finding green spaces away from traffic fumes and by plugging in my earphones to fill my brain with podcasts or music instead of random background noise.

But, having moved recently from Manchester to Plymouth, I am fortunate to have found a more runner-friendly city, one that has plenty of green, open space along the seafront, where the air is clean, and the traffic is absent. So, having unplugged my ears, I have rediscovered one of nature’s most joyous sounds – birdsong.

There is a growing body of research that confirms what we know instinctively, that spending time in nature is good for us, but there are specific studies relating to the beneficial effect of consciously listening to birdsong that indicate its effect is more than just a pleasant experience. For instance, a study in California showed that just 7-10 minutes of listening to birdsong improves people’s well-being. But it’s not all plain sailing: scientists at the University of Surrey found that while some bird sounds offered relief from mental fatigue and stress, the outcome was not uniform. For example, some people found the clucking of chickens induced stress, but the cooing of wood pigeons had the opposite effect. In another recent study 73% of people reported being more aware of birdsong during the COVID-19 lockdown in the UK and many said it comforted and calmed them. And in a children’s hospital in Liverpool, the sweet sounds of a recording of birdsong along the hallways is known to calm anxious young patients. Perhaps this is a legacy of the early days of DAB radio, when there was a station that played nothing but uninterrupted birdsong?

When I’m running these days, I hear a lot of seagulls. Their cry is usually described as “squawking”, which implies that it is annoying, yet it puts me in mind of their freewheeling flight in the open skies above the sea, an elevating experience if ever there was one.

Here are some links for those of you who want to experience birdsong from your armchair. Some friends in mid-Cornwall are recording daily the dawn chorus from an ancient woodland. Go to Today's Dawn Chorus - And there is always the quick-fix on BBC Radio 4 at 05.58 each morning, the 90-second Tweet of the Day. And no, we’re not talking Twitter! Maybe you will be persuaded outdoors to track down your own favourite birdsongs. Happy listening.