Before the stay-at-home orders of 2020 kept him in one place for months on end, David Attenborough had never sat in his garden and listened to the birds. Not properly, he says, not determinedly “swotting up with a notebook and keeping a bird list”. The foremost figure in natural-world broadcasting (so admired by naturalists around the planet, he has three types of plant as well as a spider, snail, grasshopper, frog, lizard, marsupial lion and shark-like fish named after him) hardly paid attention to the wildlife on his doorstep until lockdown forced his hand. From spring through to autumn, he says, he sat outside with a pencil and made a determined effort to identify every species he could hear. Blackbirds. Thrushes. Jays. Blue tits and great tits. Swifts.
“Actually, I couldn’t really hear the swifts,” the 94-year-old admits. Something to do with their pitch, and his failing ears. “My hearing,” Attenborough growls, using the breathy, mournful voice that often accompanies footage of an ageing alpha getting supplanted by a younger fitter animal, “is not what it was.”