Prayer for the Day is the best thing to wake up to

As the owner of a radio alarm clock, I could theoretically start listening to the Today programme before I’m even awake, but I rarely do. I tell myself it’s too much for first thing; that it’s bound to put me in a bad mood with some interview or other; that Today can wait until tomorrow – or at least until I’ve had my breakfast and a blitz of the somewhat jollier Times Radio. The levée, I say in a Bertie Woosterish sort of way, demands something light. When you crave something thought-provoking but also comforting, nothing beats a few minutes of prayer But then I find myself waking up unintentionally

Where to go to hear a nightingale sing

The first cuckoos are audible, skylarks are singing their hearts out, the dawn chorus is in full, joyous effect and more bitterns are booming than in decades. But the real highlight of the birdsong calendar is only now beginning in earnest: nightingale season. Nightingales have been winging their way from sub-Saharan Africa across Spain and France and into the wilder fringes of the southern part of England, where they are beginning their attempts to seduce each other by means of song. And it’s this seductive sound that has given this tiny bird such a huge place in our culture.  There are two guaranteed reference points for any discussion about nightingales.

An avian allegory: Dinosaurs, by Lydia Millet, reviewed

Adapt or die. That brutal Darwinian dictum is too blunt to serve as the motto of Dinosaurs, Lydia Millet’s slim, quietly powerful 12th novel, but the threat of extinction, implicit in the title, hovers in the air. Bird-obsessed – our feathered friends are ‘the last of the dinosaurs’ – the novel tracks two years in the life of a ‘stricken’ character who feels ‘less than whole’. Gil was damaged in early childhood by the sudden death of both parents, and then by a second abandonment, by a long-term girlfriend who absconded, leaving a three-word note: ‘I met someone.’ Gil is rich, having inherited his grandfather’s fortune. He has few friends

Red kites should never have been reintroduced to Britain

I own a grass farm in the Chilterns which provides grazing for horses and haymaking. It also provides habitat for hares, skylarks, lapwings and field voles (the staple diet of my resident pair of barn owls) – which is why I am so set against the red kites. Between 1989 and 1994, red kites from Spain were imported and released into the Chilterns by the RSPB and Natural England. The population here had dwindled and the RSPB describes the reintroduction programme as ‘one of the UK’s biggest conservation success stories’. But it’s only a success story if you ignore the devastating effect red kites have had on other wildlife. The

Letters: The revelation that could force Boris to resign

The lie’s the thing Sir: Your leading article (‘Partygate’s hangover’, 2 April) maintains that if the Prime Minister receives a fixed penalty notice, he shouldn’t have to resign. No fair-minded person would disagree with this, for such a resignation would indeed be absurd. However, there is a more serious issue. The Prime Minister repeatedly assured the House of Commons that all Covid guidelines were followed in Downing Street. If it is found that he knowingly misled MPs with these claims, then the Ministerial Code is entirely clear: he would have to resign. John Hatt Firbank, Cumbria Thatcher’s war Sir: Charles Moore writes that if Margaret Thatcher had failed to retake

The scourge of urban gulls

Early this year, five dead herring gulls were discovered on a Cornish beach, and when tested it was found they had bird flu. This should have provoked serious concern: these were the first gulls to be found carrying bird flu in Britain. But because of the war and because we’re sick of epidemics, it was largely ignored. The dead gulls matter because gulls live among us. Some 75 per cent of our herring gulls are now urban. There are 100,000 to 180,000 breeding on rooftops in England, according to the 2020 national census. Tim Newark sounded the alarm in these pages that year, but since then the problem has grown

A playful version of the universe: Pure Colour, by Sheila Heti, reviewed

Readers familiar with Sheila Heti’s work, most notably How Should a Person Be? and Motherhood, in which she examines both the possibility and implications of choosing one’s life and dealing with the consequences, will be familiar with her apparent capriciousness. Her prose — freewheeling, elliptical, a tangle of jokiness and jeopardy — seems to capture the puzzle of proportionality: how seriously should we take this one life we have, and how can we hope to balance our opposing urges towards levity and gravity? In Pure Colour, we appear to be in similar territory, immediately introduced to a playful version of the universe in which humans are the critics of God’s

Made me buzz like an electron: Science – Clear+Vivid with Alan Alda reviewed

Given my affection for M*A*S*H, I can’t think why I haven’t listened to Alan Alda’s podcasts before now, besides the fact that they look quite uninviting. There is Clear+Vivid, on the power of communication, and Science: Clear+Vivid, on the power of scientific research. As someone who used to fall asleep listening to cassettes for A-Level physics, I am not easily excited by protons, and was prepared to give the latter particularly short shrift. Five hours on, however, Alda is still in my ears, and I am buzzing like an electron. Unlike many presenters, Alda, 85, doesn’t pretend not to know something just so that his interviewee will explain it to

Why it’s boom time for bitterns

Bitterns are booming, both literally and metaphorically. These handsome brown birds from the heron family make a noise quite unlike anything else in Britain and we are lucky to be able to hear it. If there is such a thing as a birding bucket list then hearing a bittern’s ‘boom’ — the loudest bird call in the country — should be on it. Before the bittern starts booming he performs a warm-up ritual called grunting. He strengthens his throat muscles, which expand to turn his gullet into an echo chamber. His powerful muscles make up a fifth of his body weight and can propel the sound of his boom for

Letters: China has peaked

China has peaked Sir: Niall Ferguson makes some good points about the nature of Xi Jinping’s imperial aspirations but misses two important parts of the picture (‘The China model’, 8 May). First, the Chinese Academy of Science predicts that China’s population will peak at 1.4 billion in 2029, drop to 1.36 billion by 2050, and shrink to as few as 1.17 billion people by 2065. They even forecast that China’s population might be reduced by about 50 per cent by the turn of the next century. And second, China’s economic rise is stalling. Rather than being on track to displace the United States as the next economic superpower, China now

The cruelty and cunning of the cuckoo

St Tiburtius’ Day, on 14 April, is traditionally when you will hear the first cuckoo. Since at least the Middle Ages, cuckoos have been seen as heralds of spring. They are also often associated with romance, and yet they are some of the cruellest birds found in Britain. The adults arrive in this country at the end of March or the beginning of April and depart in late July or August. They return to central Africa and fly, either via Italy, resting near the River Po and continuing over the Sahara, or stopping in Spain before entering Africa from the far western end. They live mainly in and around the

Helen Macdonald could charm the birds out of the trees

When Helen Macdonald was a child, she had a way of calming herself during moments of stress: closing her eyes, she would imagine and count through the layers of the earth that lay beneath her, and then the layers of atmosphere above her. ‘It had something of the power of incantation,’ she writes in Vesper Flights, an essay originally published in the New York Times Magazine and now the title piece in this new collection of essays. Much like her previous book H Is for Hawk, this volume sees Macdonald weave together personal reflections, natural and human histories and fragments of autobiography to create nature writing that is at once

Even the owl in my garden is self-isolating

My tawny owl has been self-isolating. I say mine but in truth she chose the nest box in my neighbour’s garden rather than the one I almost killed myself to install, balancing it on my head as I scaled a rickety old ladder. A couple of months ago I spotted the owl, happily sitting in the box’s entrance in the weakening sun. A pattern was established. Every evening as day drained away, I went into the garden, balancing my old Zeiss binoculars alongside a glass of white. The owl would fly in silently from the south, sit around for a while and then disappear into the box. These regular sightings