Playlists: songs about urban wildlife and nature

By barbryn


The grass is always greener when it bursts up through concrete

We live in an increasingly urban world. More than half the human population lives in cities, and that proportion is rising all the time. In our concrete jungles, it’s easy to become disconnected from nature. 

Look a little closer, though, and it’s all around us. Round the back of the supermarket, where blackberries are sold in plastic punnets, ramble wild brambles. In Black Berry Blossoms, Abbey Lincoln takes an old bluegrass tune and gives it an urban jazz twist, adding a lyric on the passing of the seasons.

When animals thrive in urban environments, we call them vermin. Rats, real and metaphorical, came up a lot this week. “Super giant sewer rats are everywhere,” warn The Rats as they plot their revenge on an extraordinary 1965 single that falls somewhere between early rock’n’roll and punk. (The B-side – The Rat’s Revenge Part 2 – is included for good measure.)

Foxes too have taken to urban living. In The Fox by The Men Who Would Not Be Blamed For Nothing, one turns up in the narrator’s bedroom in Manor House, north London, having been chased through Kent and the Tube by toffs (“it’s always fucking toffs, they’ve got a thing about foxes”). He’s not an especially welcome guest, though it’s open for debate whether this is down to his antisocial habits or just a form of racism.

Other urban animals are more popular – like the deer of Nara Park in Japan, once considered sacred and today officially designated as a national treasure. As Shonen Knife explain, you can buy special Deer Biscuits to feed them, but beware – more than 100 tourists get injured every year.

Two hundred years ago, passenger pigeons gathered in flocks of more than a billion. In a matter of decades, they were hunted to extinction; the last one died in Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. Their disappearance haunts The Handsome Family, sitting in an empty park, “throwing potato chips into the white snow drifts / Just in case a bird decides to fly through.”

Not sure if potato chips are good for ducks. You’re not meant to give them bread – frozen peas are apparently a good alternative. Still, as simple pleasures go, it’s hard to beat Holding Hands, Feeding Ducks in the park with The Brunettes

Recent research shows that feeding birds has led to an increase in their numbers and the diversity of species in Britain’s urban areas. In my day job, I write a lot about the value of biodiversity, ecosystem services and natural capital, but you can’t put a price on a songbird’s melody floating over the rooftops – as heard by Richard Hawley in As The Dawn Breaks.

Birds of prey can also thrive among our concrete cliffs and canyons: Urban Ospreys are a real phenomenon, but Robert Lloyd of The Nightingales is ambivalent about having them nesting in his garden. Sure, they’re fascinating, but he’s “worried stupid about the eggs”

Enlightened urban ospreys nest on lampposts

Enlightened urban ospreys nest on lampposts

Grasscut’s pastoral electronica peels away the layers of the British landscape. Red Kite is a study in contrasts: beyond the slate dumps and copper mines, concrete towers and power lines, “there’s a red kite flying above the pines / Black crow sat on the phone line / Skylarks fly, describe the sky.” 

Nature is endlessly adaptable and remarkably resilient: “Life finds a way”, as Nancy Kerr puts it as she watches bees making Dark Honey from a Cola can. But “when man has driven the drone of bees / From all the fields and cemeteries / He’ll miss that richness his nature craves”.  

One way to help bees and other wildlife is to rewild our gardens. XTC want to take this further: they imagine a car-free utopia, where you hear “the dandelions roar in Piccadilly Circus” and where, in place of the motorway, there’s a River of Orchids

Or we could carry on destroying our planet until we destroy ourselves. CocoRosie’s Fairy Paradise imagines a post-apocalyptic world, where only the elemental spirits are left “to beachcomb the nuclear debris / Our plastic toys and our metal trees.” This would be depressing note to end on if the music in this live version weren’t so elegiacally beautiful.