Celebrating Our Resident Singers

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By Terry Flanagan, Mooney Goes Wild reporter

There is nothing to rival the Dawn Chorus. On a walk along a hedgerow or canal-bank, early on a Spring morning, a myriad of sounds can be heard. Ireland has about a hundred really common resident birds, ranging from the Goldcrest, the smallest, to the Mute Swan, the largest. However, not all of these birds sing. The commonest, and best known, resident as opposed to migrant, songbirds are the Song Thrush, Blackbird, Robin, Wren, Skylark, various finches and the tits.

Robin (photo by Michael Finn)

Robin (photo by Michael Finn)

The Robin is perhaps our best known, and best loved, bird. Although often associated with Christmas, Robins are very conspicuous in Spring, singing loudly from vantage points. In doing so, a Robin proclaims his territory to intruders, thus saving him the job of patrolling his boundaries. Robins occasionally sing at night, but most start singing at dawn.

But why do birds start singing so early? The species with the largest eyes tend to sing earliest. Big eyes gather more light and big-eyed creatures have better eyesight in the early morning darkness.

The birds with the dullest plumage tend to have the most complex songs. The Wren, for example, is a small skulking bird of woodland and hedgerows. Ireland's second smallest bird, it is difficult to see, but the Wren has a most powerful song. The brightly coloured Great Tit, which can advertise visually, has a simple two syllable 'teacher, teacher' song.

Great Tit (photo by Michael Finn)

Great Tit (photo by Michael Finn)

The Great tit's song is easy to recognise. So is the Yellowhammer's 'A little bit of bread and no CHEESE', or the Woodpigeon's 'Take two, do, take two'. The blackbird has a rich deep song and he does not repeat himself. The Song Thrush, in contrast, repeats each of his short phrases.

Not all birds sing from a vantage point. The Skylark doesn't. He sings while hovering from a stationary position high in the air.

Birds which have not yet obtained mates tend to sing more often and more vigorously than ones which are already paired. If a partner is lost, then the male will start singing more vigorously to attract another female.

Not all birdsong is harmonious to our ears. Herons squawk and croak, owls hoot, crows caw and ducks quack. This doesn't mean we can't enjoy them.

The birds form a natural orchestra, creating a great variety of sound. Now is the time to enjoy it; in a few weeks the birds will have moved on to the next stage of their lifecycle, raising their families. As we all know, there is little time for singing when there are hungry mouths to be fed.

Terry Flanagan is a biologist and science teacher. A keen naturalist and broadcaster, he has been active in major conservation organisations for many years. He is currently the roving reporter for Mooney Goes Wild.

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