The science of sleep

I remember as a child sitting in the back seat of the car as my dad drove the family home from a day out in the Yorkshire Dales, always on the look out for interesting and unusual sights out of the window – I was the eye-spy champion after all!  One time in particular sticks in my mind, the time we pulled over to watch an owl sat ever so still on the gable end of a neighbour’s house.  It seemed like forever that we watched it, tens of minutes at least, all five of us debating why he was sat so still for so long.  He wasn’t entirely still of course – his wings flapped a little and his head definitely twitched numerous times.  A while passed and we eventually resigned ourselves to not seeing him take-off and soar through the night sky in search of prey.  Not that evening in any case, and so we went home to bed.  Of course not long afterwards we drove past the house in daylight and Mr. Owl was still there, doomed to perch in a stony silent eternity, under the spell of a wicked witch.

I remember after that episode I would listen out for Owls as I lay enveloped by the dark stillness of night in my bed in the countryside.  It was a rare occurrence to hear their call. This memory had completely slipped my mind until recently, now I dream of those days as I’ve become blighted by the call of birdsong in the early hours as I try to sleep.  When I first moved to London I was too frustrated by the endless passing of buses and slamming of doors to hear birdsong as I lay in bed, but as I become accustomed to the sounds of the city that never sleeps I realise that this trend is also followed by our bird population.

All night long there is bird call, relentless.  Louder than I’ve ever known it, as if in competition with us humans and our machines.  It’s rather disorientating, hearing the dawn chorus in the deep of night and recently has become rather an obsession of mine. At first I thought I was crazy, my ears were hallucinating.  When I could still hear the birds weeks later I drew the conclusion that it was drug dealers using tin whistles to attract customers to their spot! (I blame that on too many stories of smugglers.)  Finally I turned amateur sleuth and googled it – it’s amazing what you can find out on the internet these days!

It turns out that birds in cities are just confused.  All the street lights casting a permanent glow over the city convince the birds that the sun is still out.  Somehow night time never arrives and so the birds never sleep.  The way we live is affecting nature in much more subtle ways than simply the climate change and over-development headlines.

I remember a Londoner friend commenting on seeing stars for the first ever time as we started our gap year on Dartmoor.  Well, he may never have seen stars but I hedge a bet that he has heard far more birds than me!


About @ngela

Unexpected Consequences is a blog by Angela Crowther, a young engineer working in the Built Environment. Currently supported by the Royal Academy of Engineering and UKRC's Ingenious program the blog’s aim is to raise awareness of all the exciting opportunities the world of engineering has to offer to hopefully stimulate others into joining the industry.
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