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Garden Birds: The Dawn Chorus

Updated on June 23, 2014

A Natural Orchestra

The Early Bird

Song thrushes get up early, and are one of the first contributors to the dawn chorus.
Song thrushes get up early, and are one of the first contributors to the dawn chorus. | Source

The Song Of The Blackbird

Introduction

The dawn chorus begins by lapping at your toes, and ends up as total immersion. What starts as a lone voice in the darkness builds up, bit by bit, into a multitude of voices, all competing for attention, like the din from dealers on the floor of the Stock Exchange. A wave of sound forms in the twilight, gets stronger and stronger, crashes over, then subsides as the brighter light of the new day takes hold and banishes the shouts to whispers, and the babble to individual homily. In April it is over by half past five, and by then much business has been done.

The first strains of the new day are heard from a wakeful blackbird or robin, both of which have large eyes and can see well in half-light. They are joined by other species in a particular order, always much the same in a certain location, but varying from place to place. Song thrushes are always in the first round, stating each of their phrases several times, with slow, clear enunciation, and with a wild-sounding air. Sooner or later a wren will intervene, blurting out its long, over-fast and indignantly loud sentence again and again, like a cornered politician. The woodpigeon soothes matters with its rhythmic, five-note coo, throaty and deep, the alto to a company of sopranos. The dunnock warbles unremarkably, the great tit chimes cheerfully and, always a little later, the chaffinch utters an accelerating rattle with a flourish for a finish. If we heard such a racket from our human neighbours we would complain about the noise, and yet most of suburbia sleeps through this dawn din, unaware of the miracle on its doorstep.

The Drumming

Many people think that the great spotted woodpecker's rapid drumming sound is made by the bird excavating a hole: in fact, it's purely to sound a territorial beat, equivalent to a song.
Many people think that the great spotted woodpecker's rapid drumming sound is made by the bird excavating a hole: in fact, it's purely to sound a territorial beat, equivalent to a song. | Source

A Summer Member Of The Chorus

The chiffchaff is one of the easiest bird songs to identify as it literally sings its own name. Its arrival in Britain also serves as a sure sign of the coming of spring.
The chiffchaff is one of the easiest bird songs to identify as it literally sings its own name. Its arrival in Britain also serves as a sure sign of the coming of spring. | Source

The Key To Solving The Mystery

Studies of great tit behaviour at dawn have given us a few clues, as to why birds engage in a dawn chorus.
Studies of great tit behaviour at dawn have given us a few clues, as to why birds engage in a dawn chorus. | Source

Many Theories

But if the buzz outside should awaken us from our slumber, perhaps we might- not necessarily politely or appreciatively- pause to wonder at the purpose behind it? Even if we do understand the general reason for singing, we might still question why this outpouring of noise should be happening now, in the chilly half-light, when we would rather be asleep? What makes birds shout so loudly when the day hasn't yet started?

The answer, as it seems, is as concealed as the vocalists themselves behind their darkened cloak of spring leaves. There are plenty of theories, but a definitive one has so far proven elusive. Currently, the different ideas compete among themselves for attention. But perhaps they all hold a degree of truth, each explaining a small piece of a wider puzzle? Nothing in the lives of our garden birds is entirely neat and simple, so why should this be?

We can quickly admit some meteorological evidence. It appears that, of all times of day, dawn is the best moment to be heard. It's a gentle time atmospherically, with reduced wind turbulence and close conditions, when sound echoes off an invisible ceiling of air a few metres above ground, keeping it locked in and easily heard. The dawn is also environmentally apposite. If you were to make a speech at dawn, it would transmit to your neighbourhood twenty times more efficiently than at midday, when the garden reverberates to the sound of cars, planes, children, lawnmowers, radios, workmen and thousands of other pollutants. It is an ideal time to make an impression.

At the same time, it's by no means an ideal time for feeding. Much as birds' stomach must rumble, after a long period without any food, searching for anything may well prove unsuccessful. Birds usually hunt by sight, so the low lighting conditions make foraging difficult. At the same time, the relative cold renders invertebrates, the mainspring food of our garden birds, as inactive as early-morning students after a night at a club. Being cold-blooded, the insects require warmth before they can emerge on to leaves and branches. What better time for birds to put all their efforts into singing, a task that requires no light or warmth from the sun.

Birds can be food items too, of course, and yet another theory of dawn singing is that it's a way of making a lot of noise without putting yourself at unacceptable risk from predators. Most things that eat birds require good light by which to hunt and those that don't, such as owls, could perhaps be expected to have full stomachs by dawn after a night of feeding. Singing, making a commotion from a prominent perch, is a potentially dangerous occupation whose threats may be contained by performing under the cover of the semi-darkness.

But what of the birds' relationship to each other? We know that singing birds are in competition, so perhaps this holds another key to the dawn dilemma? One possibility seems especially likely. The nights, even in April can be cold, and some birds, tragically overstretched or inopportunely diseased, expire overnight. Like a bunch of school kids answering the register, maybe birds sing at dawn to confirm their presence, to put their hands and say 'I'm here?' If so, vacancies would quickly become apparent, and new occupants would then be rapidly and unceremoniously installed. So much for the discredited notion that birds sing when they are happy.

But the most intriguing explanation for the dawn chorus is also by far the sauciest. Drawn from studies of great tits, it contends that birds may sing during the earliest part of the day to keep their females out of mischief. In the great tit at least, and probably in the blackbird too, the peak of the dawn chorus coincides with the females' fertile periods, the time when a male's paternity is potentially most at risk. Females lay their daily egg at dawn, and from this moment on are rabidly fertile. It is in a male's urgent interest that, as soon as the female comes off the nest, he is ready outside for her, singing loudly, and speaking the language of copulation. Once he succeeds in mating with her, his song output drops- one is tempted to suggest, in sheer relief. If he is absent from his post, she will be vulnerable to the charms and attentions of neighbouring males, and his paternity is compromised. In the great tit, then, the dawn chorus appears to be a form of mate-guarding.

Whatever theory you choose, the dawn-chorus carries on. That's sometimes the beauty of the familiar. We all know it happens, and many good minds have been stretched to explain it, but it's still a mystery welling up from the apparently commonplace. When it wakes you next, though, spare a thought for the stressed-out-mate-guarding great tit, and go back to sleep with your irritation soothed by a degree of suitable sympathy.

Your Personal Experience Of The Dawn Chorus

Have you ever listened to the dawn chorus

See results

© 2014 James Kenny

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    • wordswithlove profile image

      Neetu M 3 years ago from USA

      No, not at all! It was a very pleasant place to live (compared to Birmingham, if you know what I mean!) and well-located for day trips to Stratford and many other places. So, I enjoyed the experience!

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Oh really, so you became very familiar with the area? Hope Solihull didn't leave a bad impresssion on you? ;)

    • wordswithlove profile image

      Neetu M 3 years ago from USA

      You are welcome. I worked in the vicinity for a couple of years. Moved around East and West Midlands for about 7 years.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you very much :)

      Interesting to hear, that you once lived in my neck of the woods. Are you originally from Solihull then? Or did you work in the vicinity?

    • wordswithlove profile image

      Neetu M 3 years ago from USA

      How very informative, James! While the sounds of this chorus fill each morning, for the most part, I simply treat them as an accompaniment to the orchestra of my own new day, a preamble to the human sounds and noises. It is only since the awfully long and brutal winters we have lately had in my neck of the woods that have piqued my curiosity to try to "understand" and identify the different notes that ring out at dawn during the long-awaited spring, after the deathly silence of winter, so prolonged! Your article is very enjoyable - thank you. And by the way, I once lived in Solihull, a long time ago - partly the reason I noticed your hub, when I saw it on the right side of my page under recommendations.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Well done, James. There is never a sole reason for anything. All of the theories are valid, in my experience, depending upon which bird one is enquiring about. There are also birds that just simply enjoy announcing their presence.

    • The Examiner-1 profile image

      The Examiner-1 3 years ago

      That was interesting to read James. I loved waking up to the birds singing in the morning. Unfortunately it only occurs in the early spring. You went through that in great detail and were very informative. I shared it and pinned it.

      Kevin

    • raymondphilippe profile image

      Raymond Philippe 3 years ago from The Netherlands

      Lovely. Reading about the bird's song and listening to the sound op the top video brought a smile on my face.

    • Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

      Beth Eaglescliffe 3 years ago from UK

      I shall listen to the dawn chorus with a new understanding after reading this hub. I sometimes listen to this wonderful natural orchestra if I wake up early.

      A great article. Voted up.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Great hub and you put all the birds so well together a beautifully written and presented hub.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 3 years ago from SW England

      I'm late getting to this one so I'm surprised there aren't many more comments already; am sharing it so there should be more. I love the first para of your introduction; what great analogy!

      I knew nothing about most of those theories; it's fascinating to read it all. Neither did I realise that there was an order to the chorus. Am I right in thinking that the blackbird, song thrush, robin and wren are related? That might explain some of the order!

      Great hub which superbly conveys the wonder of it all as well as an amazing amount of information.

      Hope your day's going well. Grey here in the SW but new grandson is keeping me busy! Ann

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

      I like the research you have done here and have never heard the explanations you offer. (I've never thought about it, but thanks for drawing attention to how lovely the chorus is in the morning.) I love feeding my birds and on occasion rise early enough to enjoy their early morning company. Voted up and more, and sharing.

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 3 years ago from Wales

      So truly wonderful and a gem to vote up and share.

      Eddy.

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 3 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      Thanks for another great article James. I love the dawn chorus, even though it sometimes disturbs my sleep.