It's all very well knowing how birds sing and why they
do so, but will you actually be able to hear the dawn chorus
for yourself and how splendid will it be? Well, it all depends
on how good your area is for songbirds, in other words the
quality of the habitat. If you want to experience a really
good chorus, bring your sleeping bag to a deciduous wood.
The woods were the original homes of songbirds. They provide
the three things birds need most; food, shelter and places
to build nests. Fresh new leaves in spring are quickly colonised
by hungry insects such as greenflies, caterpillars, leaf-hoppers
and saw-flies, all of them tasty morsels for a bird with
hungry young to feed. The Blue Tit times the hatching of
her eggs to coincide with the big flush of caterpillars
on oak leaves in early June.
There are all sorts of niches in woodland, and different
birds can feed close to each other. Blackbirds poke through
the leaf litter on the woodland floor and gorge themselves
on slugs and earthworms. Residents with long beaks, such
as Treecreepers, nosily probe cracks in the barks of tall
trees, while flying insects are nabbed by the agile Spotted
Flycatcher. All-rounders such as Goldcrests, Wrens and Robins
are spoilt for choice with an abundance of spiders, flies,
earwigs, seeds and berries to choose from.
Vegetarian birds, such as finches, treat the wood as their
personal supermarket. The more raucous contributors to the
dawn chorus are the Jays and Rooks, although we don't like
to think that a Jay's diet may include the nestlings of
its woodland neighbours. There is plenty of cover in good
deciduous woodland and the birds can find lots of secure
places in which to build their nests.
We have few such woods in Ireland. They account for only
2% of our tree-cover, so finding some in your area may be
difficult. It's just as well then that hedgerows are also
an ideal habitat. Half of all our countryside birds, among
them some of the finest singers of the dawn chorus, live
and hold territory in hedges. So, very conveniently, the
less fanatical among us can lie in bed with the window open
in the early morning and enjoy the bird song emanating from
the surrounding garden hedges. Or at least those of us who
have taken care with our hedges can.
Large tall full hedges are great for birds, offering plenty
of cover for secure nests. Hedges with a tree layer, a lower
shrub layer and lots of flowers at the base, are desirable
properties from a bird's point of view. A mixture of species
provides a variety of food for birds, so hedges with Hawthorn,
Blackthorn, Ash, Elder, Crab Apple, Hazel, Holly, Bramble,
Wild Rose and Honeysuckle are much more likely to resound
with a dawn chorus than a line of yellow Leyland Cypress,
which some people use as a hedge.
Sub-urban gardens with hedges on three sides are ideal
for birds. Switched-on gardeners will have planted shrubs
with thorns and berries such as Pyrecantha and Cotoneaster.
They will have left uncultivated patches to appeal to the
seedeaters. There will be plenty of nesting cover, perhaps
a small pond, a bird-table and, of course, no cats. Such
a virtuous gardener gets a special reward from grateful
thrushes, Blackbirds, Wrens, Robins, Great Tits, Chaffinches,
Greenfinches and sparrows; a free orchestral performance
from March till June. Food, shelter and nest sites; what
more could a couple in love want? Your garden will be the
most sought-after residential area in town.
If you want to hear a different dawn chorus, visit the
open countryside. This is the domain of the Cuckoo who,
from late April onwards, really convinces us that summer
is here. It is also the home of the Cuckoo's usual host
in Ireland, the Meadow Pipit. You may also hear the much
beloved Skylark. These birds feed on insects and their larvae.
Intensively farmed countryside does not suit them so don't
expect to hear them if that is where you live. If, however,
you and your neighbours are in the Rural Environment Protection
Scheme (REPS), sharpen your ears for the songs of the Goldfinch,
Yellowhammer, Stonechat and Wheatear, all of which can find
the insect and seed food they need and the cover for nests
in environmentally friendly areas.
So really, the quality of your local dawn chorus is determined
by you. What sort of habitat have you provided in your area
for birds to live in? Remember, it can always be improved
with even a modicum of effort. So don't just stare at that
Eanna Ni Lamhna is a botanist and ecologist. She lectures
on sustainable development at the Dublin Institute of Technology.
President of An Taisce and a heritage expert, her most recent
book, Wild and Wonderful, is published by Townhouse.