Sunday 3 May is International Dawn Chorus Day and the RSPB and our supporters are listening out and enjoying this magical experience all week. In the Summer 2019 issue of Nature’s Home, Adrian Thomas delved into the wonderful world of the dawn chorus and this week we’re re-reading this lovely feature. Who would’ve thought that when we published this last year, we’d get birdsong into the top 20 of the UK charts - all thanks to you!
From the archives: Voices of Spring
It’s a glorious May morning, and I’ve arrived early at RSPB Ynys-hir in west Wales. In fact, it’s very early – 4.30am, and there’s not a train or car to be heard. It’s just me. And birdsong. What starts as a few liquid opening bars of robins soon builds into full symphony: there are rich, fluty blackcaps, babbling streams of garden warblers, sweet cascades of willow warblers, and the simple vocal step-exercises of pied flycatchers. And that’s without even pausing to notice the torrent of wren song, the jolly jigs of chaffinches and the bass rhythm of woodpigeons that underpin it all.
Then, in the distance, a cuckoo begins to call its name. It’s a sound to lift the spirits, to lose you in the moment; it seems like nature’s confirmation that spring is truly here, with all the hope it brings. Such is the stirring nature of birdsong. Until relatively recently, it was the main outdoor soundtrack to accompany human lives, and it retains the power to create deep and abiding memories of special places and times in our lives. What’s more, it’s free to all who care to listen.
WHY DO BIRDS SING?
Singing, of course, is in part about male birds trying to attract a mate. We might call these tunes “love-songs”, but they are more about the males showing off. It’s a talent show, each trying to convince any female within earshot that his vocal prowess proves he’d be a fit father for her young.
However, song is also aimed from one male to another, a loud-hailer message that proclaims, “This is my patch. I’m so robust and healthy that I’ve got time to sing rather than feed, so keep your distance.” The double purpose of birdsong helps explain why so many birds sing so enthusiastically in the dawn chorus. As the males wake up, it is the best way to let their mates know they have survived, and to reassert their territorial rights should any intruder have snuck in during the night.
Of course, not all the sounds we hear from birds are songs. In fact, technically, it is only the songbirds that sing, such as the warblers, thrushes and finches. Only they have the mental capacity to actually learn a repertoire.
The wide range of other birdsounds we hear are hard-wired into birds from birth, and are known as calls. Many of the larger birds such as pigeons, ducks and wading birds have what are known as display calls or advertising calls that serve much the same function as true song; indeed, they can be quite melodic.
However, many calls are made equally by both sexes and are often short and simple. They include sounds that signal alarm, and others that are just about keeping in contact with their flock. It may not be language as we know it, but it is certainly communication.
Although bird calls can be heard at almost any time of year, it is nevertheless in spring that birdsound turns into a magnificent concert. The lengthening days and birds’ internal body clocks prompt a flush of hormones that create this overwhelming urge to sing. It rings out from gardens, parks, hedges and woods to marshes and even mountain tops.
Some of our resident birds have been limbering up for a couple of months or so, taking the advantage of still, sunny winter days to practise. Then, from mid-March, new voices begin to arrive, starting with the chiffchaff that, like the cuckoo, sings its own name, and is soon joined by blackcaps and willow warblers. By mid-April, the floodgates are open as millions of migrant birds pour back in from Africa to their summer homes. By early May the chorus is at its peak.
Dawn can be a riot of noise, but the performance doesn’t end with the sunrise. Many males continue to sing sporadically throughout the day, with some species throwing in an evening chorus, too. The nightingale is unusual in being one of very few birds that continue into the night, as unmated males sing lovelorn tunes to lure passing females down from the starlit sky.
PUT A NAME TO THE VOICE
As well as the pleasure we get from birdsong, it offers two added bonuses. First, it alerts us to many birds that we would otherwise be oblivious to, such as when they are hidden deep among foliage. The second is that each bird species has its own distinct repertoire and that means that, with practice, we can tell one species from another just by their sounds.
Some may be very familiar to you already, such as the “teacher-teacher” song of the great tit, or the quavering hoot of the tawny owl. However, some bird sounds can seem very difficult to get to grips with, especially those that are complex, fast twittering verses that seem to change each time. This is where a little bit of guidance goes a long way, so that you don’t have to crack the code yourself.
For example, both the blackbird and the robin sing short, sweet song verses, with what seems like endless variation, and it can be very easy to confuse the two. However, the blackbird’s phrases are a more consistently mellow, fluty whistle, four or five clear notes that often end with a weak, squeaky twiddle. Meanwhile, the robin alternates between high and low phrases that have the character of a mountain stream, with longer still notes like calm pools of sound that overflow into a trickle, gush and gurgle.
The more bird sounds you learn, the more birds you will notice; it’s like recognising the voices of friends. In fact, tuning in to birdsong has been shown to be a brilliant mindfulness tool, a way of bringing yourself back into the present moment away from the worries of life.
The tragedy is that we are losing birdsong from our world. There are an estimated 44 million fewer birds in the UK landscape than there were 50 years ago. We’ve lost a million skylarks, nightingales are down 90% in the last 50 years, and the turtle dove, whose soft purring was once commonplace in the south, is almost gone completely. That is a lot of voices missing from nature’s choir.
That’s why in 2019 the RSPB started a campaign called Let Nature Sing. With the power of all your voices, the RSPB drew attention to nature’s plight so that more people recognise the crisis and take action. Together, we can ensure that nature doesn’t fall silent. We released the RSPB’s specially created track of beautiful birdsong – recorded by yours truly and edited with the help of folk musician Sam Lee and Bill Barclay, Music Director at the Globe Theatre. With your help, we got it into the charts – and into the top 20! What an amazing public statement that nature matters, and that we don’t want to lose birdsong from our lives.
To see what else we’re doing to celebrate International Dawn Chorus Day and for ways to get involved and help - have a look at the website here. You can also join thousands of people on our Facebook page on Sunday 3 May for Dawn Chorus Day Live.
Images: wood warbler, Graham Goodall (rspb-images.com)/ Common nightingale at dawn, Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)/ Nightingale, Graham Goodall (rspb-images.com).
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