After the Beast from the East and endless grey days, it felt like Spring would never come. April may bring showers (and lambs, of course), but clocks go forward and everywhere I look are green shoots and unfurling buds. I start to notice the dawn chorus and by May we’re at peak bird-song. How can I possibly choose a favourite? The melodious blackbird who serenades me from the garage roof? Or the friendly robin who chirrups from the holly hedge? No, for my money the most talented vocalist is often impossible to see, but certainly makes itself heard – the skylark.
Milder weather and increased daylight mean I have no excuse for not leaving my sedentary desk-life for a walk around the village. Following narrow lanes and bridleways, I pass woodlands and fields of emerging crops, and if I’m lucky, it’s in (or rather, over) the latter that I’ll spot a skylark. It’s predominantly a farmland bird, seeking open countryside – fields of cereal or grass, but it’s also partial to heathland, sand-dunes and or grassy spaces such as golf courses or airfields. I couldn’t give the skylark many marks for looks. Size-wise it comes in somewhere between a sparrow and a starling. The brown, streaky plumage with buff underparts is non-descript but does provide camouflage against roaming predators, a necessity for a ground-nesting bird. The crest on its head, which it raises when alarmed, is the only feature to detract from the skylark’s plainness.
But you don’t have to be handsome to attract a mate! Male skylarks compete for territories and female attention by aerial singing. They take off almost vertically, ascend as much as 300 metres and let rip with an amazing outpouring of song. There are reports of these performances lasting anywhere from five minutes to an hour. When its wings need rest, the skylark may continue to sing on a handy fence post. It’s a rolling, endless flurry of notes, which in his ‘Ode to a Skylark’ Shelley described as ‘joyous, clear, and fresh.’ Standing beside a field of oil-seed rape on a misty morning, I’d say the poet was spot-on with his description. I can enjoy the song, but the singer is invisible in the cloud.
Life isn’t easy for the skylark, and its numbers have declined rapidly since the 1970s, giving it red status on the list of endangered British birds. It likes to nest in open fields where the vegetation is no taller than 60cm, but autumn-sown crops have grown too tall by the time breeding season comes around. It will also nest in grass, but mowing for silage brings more risks for the young, and a pair of skylarks may have to try two or three times in a season to raise a successful brood. Their diet includes seeds of grass, weeds and insects which are destroyed by herbicides and insecticides. The skylark’s natural habitat seems at odds with modern farming, despite efforts of many farmers to accommodate it. As a gardener trying to balance pest-control with support of wildlife, I can sympathise.
Organic practises and set-aside have helped, although the skylark is averse to the left-aside margins of fields close to high hedgerows – possibly because of predators. Bare patches in the middle of fields, so-called skylark ‘plots’ have been tried with limited success. However, where landowners and farmers grow crops for winter game birds such as pheasant and partridge, this has also provided food for the skylark.
Hopefully, the outlook will improve for this marvellous bird, and even if you don’t see one on a walk, enjoy the song. According to an old gamekeeper’s tale, if you see a skylark flying high early in the morning, then it’s going to be a beautiful day.