By Niall Hatch, Development Officer with BirdWatch Ireland
The dawn chorus is one of the most pleasurable experiences that the natural world has to offer. Each year, people all over Ireland go out, either by themselves or on guided dawn chorus walks, to enjoy it for themselves. If you’ve never done it, you really should give it a go. I know you hear birds singing all the time, but unless you’ve stood in the middle of a woodland before first light, you honestly don’t know what you’re missing. The dawn chorus can be astonishingly loud and powerful, yet most people sleep right through it. Do it once and you’ll be hooked.
Choosing the right place from which to listen is very important. The best venues are those that offer the widest array of different habitats: plenty of trees of differing heights, a rich understory of bushes, open grassy areas nearby, walls with crevices for nesting, etc. The more varied the habitat, the more different bird species will be present, and so the richer the chorus will be. A secluded park with plenty of mature trees would be a good choice, but well-wooded suburban gardens can also be excellent. If there happens to be a pond or lake nearby, this will attract an even wider variety of bird species.
The time of year is also an important consideration. Most birds only sing just before and during the breeding season, which means that the dawn chorus is at its best between mid April and early June. As a general rule of thumb, any clear, calm morning during May should be perfect.
Blue Tit (photo by Clive Timmons)
An early start is a must. Birds sing throughout the day, but they are generally most vocal just as the sun is rising. There is also a distinct order in which they start to perform: those with the largest eyes begin to sing first. This may sound odd, but when you think about it, it makes sense. When a bird is singing, it is broadcasting its precise location to every predator in the neighbourhood. It won’t be happy to do this unless there is enough light to allow it to see danger approaching. The larger a bird’s eyes, the more light they gather, so the better they can see in low light levels. This is why the Blackbirds, Song Thrushes, Mistle Thrushes and Robins always start first, followed a few minutes later by the Wrens, Woodpigeons and Goldcrests. The Blue, Great and Coal Tits usually join in next, with the Chaffinches, Greenfinches and Goldfinches hot on their heels and, after them, the warblers. They all perceive the sun’s brightness differently and so start to sing at different intervals. Hearing the dawn chorus build like this is one of the most enjoyable parts.
All going well, you will hear a lot of different birds singing. Please don’t put too much emphasis or importance on trying to put names to them all. To my mind, the most important thing of all is simply to enjoy the natural concert. If over time you begin to learn how to distinguish the songs of the different species, great: it’s actually not as difficult as it first might seem, and like most things in life becomes easier with practice and experience. Don’t get bogged down with this, however: as with any choir, the individual singers are far less important than the collective music they produce. Take time to clear your mind and enjoy it.
To experience the full chorus, ideally you should be in position before it begins. During May, this means that on the east coast of Ireland you want to be out by 4:00am; on the west coast, you can have an extra half-hour lie-in, as dawn will come slightly later for you. By about 6:30 things will have wound down again. Most people aren’t used to being out and about at this time of day, and you will probably find it significantly colder than you might expect. It’s best to dress in layers so that you can remove some as the sun rises and warms the air. The grass will also be absolutely sodden with dew at that time of the morning, so waterproof footwear is a very good idea too.
Dunnock (photo by Dick Coombes)
It is vital that you do as little as possible. You should be a silent, unobtrusive listener, taking care not to disturb the birds so that the will behave naturally. Leave the dogs at home, and make sure that any children that join you know that they need to be on their best behaviour. Birds are easily spooked and don’t like unexpected disruption. Anyway, the whole point of the experience is to let the birds do all the talking and to let the whole experience wash over you, so keeping noise to a minimum makes sense.
Why are all these birds singing anyway? It’s tempting to believe that they are doing it for our benefit, but of course that’s not the case at all. The dawn chorus may sound like beautiful music to our human ears, but to the birds it is actually something very aggressive indeed: for them, singing is really a form of fighting. Put simply, the dawn chorus is a massive avian shouting match.
With almost all Irish bird species, only the male does the singing. When he does so, he’s telling all the other males of his own species that happen to be within earshot that he is laying claim to a particular territory. The boundaries of that territory will be made perfectly clear by the way he moves around them during his performance, and he is putting those potential rivals on notice that if they dare enter it, they can expect trouble. He is also in turn listening to the songs of those rivals, and can automatically sense whether they are stronger or weaker than he is. The stronger the bird, the better the territory it can claim, meaning that actual physical confrontation can be avoided in most cases: it is literally a song contest with real estate as the prize. As far as we know, each singing male only cares about the songs of other members of his own species. A Blackbird, for example, doesn’t see a Blue Tit as a competitor for food or nesting locations, so he generally doesn’t mind what he is up to; another male Blackbird coming too close, however, will make him fly into a rage.
Blackbird (photo by Ken Kinsella)
The other thing that a male bird is trying to do when he sings, especially at the start of the nesting season, is to impress a female (or, with some species, more than one female) and to entice her to mate with him and let him pass his genes on to the next generation. She will be impressed by the male who can defend the biggest and most productive territories, and she will also be keeping a keen ear out for the male who can “waste” the better part of his time singing. After all, if he can afford to sing a lot, that means that he’s neither sick nor hungry, so he much be in good physical condition and must be holding a territory that more than meets his dietary needs. If his voice sounds strong, it follows that the rest of him probably is too.
As the nesting season goes on and the chicks hatch out of their eggs, the male’s song performs another crucial function. Those chicks don’t automatically know what their species should sound like: they need to learn the right songs by hearing their father sing them. This means that the male chicks will know how they should sing when they become adults, and the female chicks will know what to listen out for in a potential mate. There are some notable exceptions that I should mention here. Pigeons chicks, which are known as squabs, have their songs genetically hard-wired into their brains and so don’t need to learn it. The Cuckoo is another exception: after all, a Cuckoo chick is raised by unwitting foster parents and never actually hears his or her father’s voice, so their song is genetically coded too. For most birds of the dawn chorus, however, this learning period is essential.
There is a lot going on in the dawn chorus. You don’t have to concern yourself with any of that if you don’t want to, however. So, go on, set the alarm clock a few hours early one morning this May, put on some warm clothes and venture out into the darkness so that you can hear the birds for yourself. I promise that you’ll be glad you did: it’s more impressive than you expect.
Niall Hatch is Development Officer for BirdWatch Ireland - for more information, visit birdwatchireland.ie.