Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Dawn Chorus

Some of my earliest and sweetest memories are of awakening at daybreak to the sound of a robin singing outside my window.  The robin’s repetitive call was easily recognizable to me, yet it wasn’t until I reached adulthood that I fully realized that his voice was but one of a host of birds singing each spring morning to create the natural phenomenon known as the dawn chorus.

What is the dawn chorus?  Here in the northern hemisphere, it is a temporal event that takes place over a period of days and weeks every spring, but it also one that is recreated every morning during that period.  It is the voices raised by a multitude of male birds to attract mates and claim breeding territories.
The first songs to be heard each vernal season are of “resident” bird species that live here year round, later to be joined by the neo-tropical migrants who fly in for summer from their wintering grounds in Central and South America. 
Where I live, the dawn chorus starts to build in early March with a few “in-house” voices: the robin’s sing-song cadence, the chickadee’s gently pleading fee-bees, the Bewick's wren's loud staccato, the spotted towhee's assertive rattle, and the junco's ticker tape trill. 

In mid-March, Violet-green and Tree swallows start chittering their joy and verve into the skies above my house, while vehemently discussing just who will be occupying the specially-designed swallow box mounted beneath my carport roof. 

As the calendar advances into April, I delight in noting the aural return of my old friends the warblers and flycatchers: especially the Orange-crowned Warbler’s downward trill, the Black-throated Gray’s zeetle, zeetle, zeetle, ZEET, the Western Wood Peewee’s raspy peer, and the Pacific Slope Flycatcher’s attention-grabbing See-oo-EET! whistle. 
As spring bird migration progresses further, I listen intently for all the familiar vocalizations.  It is only when I hear the Black-headed Grosbeak's jazzy improv, the Western Tanager's clever robin imitation, and the Swainson's Thrush's "Doink!", whinny, and ethereal, spiraling reverberations, that my heart gains its ease, knowing that all the eagerly awaited sojourners are present once again.
On a daily basis, the dawn chorus actually begins before any light is discernible by the human eye, around 4:30 a.m.  Yet the birds must see it. One study found that the opening verses of the dawn chorus are sung by the bird species with the largest eyes.
But why do birds sing at or before dawn? Here is a good explanation from Yahoo Answers as to why male birds choose the hours nearest sunrise to warble their arias:
Dawn is the best time to sing because the air is generally calmer and sound transmission is good. A dawn song is thought to be 20 times more effective than singing at midday and at dawn, birds can do little else. Light is poor and insect prey is not flying, so foraging for food is difficult. Also, female birds generally lay eggs in the morning, so a dawn mating is the best time for a male. Finally, if any birds have died overnight, the others will know where there is a vacant territory.
I am fortunate to live in good bird habitat; near a large wetland and surrounded by forest edge vegetation.  In my first years of residency at this location I would sometimes rise early on a spring morning and stand on the bank behind my house to listen in awe and appreciation to the beautiful swelling symphony that is the sound of the earth singing.

Yet over time as land development and habitat destruction has occurred in my neighborhood, that composition, while still robust, has diminished in nature and become slightly harder to distinguish. Studies have shown that birds nesting in urban in areas must now sing louder than normal to be heard above our human-created cacophony, especially that of traffic noise. Situated as I am near several big box stores and I-5, the birds have to “shout” to be heard.  There are also concerns about light pollution’s effects on birds, which may cause them to confuse night for day and sing when they should be sleeping.
There are many ways to enjoy the Dawn Chorus.  My sister recalls a birding class she taught several years ago.  She took her students on an early-morning field trip to Ellis Cove at Priest Point Park to hear the dawn chorus. She says the experience was unforgettable.
There must be many other similarly great places in Thurston County to hear nature’s majestic chorale.
I have taken to video-taping the dawn chorus on my camera and playing back the recordings, especially during the mid-winter months to remind myself that the season of darkness inevitably gives way to the season of light.
The dawn chorus is available on CD.  Lang Elliott is a “nature recordist, photographer and author” whose works I have enjoyed.  I found his book Music of the Birds: A Celebration of Bird Song fascinating.
One of my favorite movies, the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightly, utilizes birdsong to wonderful effect.  In some early scenes, the voice of a single male bird serenades Lizzie, clearly foreshadowing her and Darcy’s ultimate pair-bonding in the gorgeous English countryside to the exultant strains of the dawn chorus.
There is even an International Dawn Chorus Day which is being held on Sunday, May 6 this year.

150 years ago, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote these lines about this amazing natural event:
Think every morning when the sun peeps through
The dim leaf-latticed windows of the grove,
How jubilant the happy birds renew
Their old, melodious madrigals of love!
And when you think of this, remember too
'Tis always morning somewhere, and above
The awakening continents, from shore to shore
Somewhere the birds are singing ever more

Yearly, the dawn chorus grants us the chance to remember that the earth belongs to all creatures, not just us. That this shining globe, hurtling through the inky blackness of space, burgeons with countless forms of life whose only desire is to not be silenced. Our task as humans is to learn to be worthy of this benediction.

I am so thankful that I can still awaken to the song of the robin outside my window.  My fervent hope is that we all continue to have this opportunity, "ever more".

Words and photos by Nancy Partlow

Dawn Chorus In Tumwater, May 2011


  1. I just wanted you to know your words are being read, enjoyed and shared. Thank you for all the information and links!