One of the joys of spring, and there’s many, is the arrival of lighter mornings.
Nothing is as delightful as lying in bed and experiencing that moment between being fully conscious and that delicious feeling of not being fully awake.
You know, where it’s not quite morning but night has virtually finished. The bedroom window has been left ajar at night and the fresh air breezing does not smell of car fumes. Then, as if on cue in time with your waking, you hear the first a blackbird singing, heralding the start of the dawn chorus like an Eno soundtrack.
It’s a strange phenomenon. The birds in the local trees and on your roof start singing in turn, starting in the east and carry on for an hour or more. The insect eating birds begin the roll call first and then the seed eating ones join in next. As the light levels intensify with the rising sun, the singing reaches a magnificent crescendo and then abruptly comes to an end.
For years, early naturalists studying birds thought the dawn chorus was sung as an expression of sheer joy at the morning’s arrival.
They then put forward the theory that the birds were singing to release pent up energy after being inactive during the darkness of night.
Today modern ornithologists know that the chorus is moment the birds sing to mark out their territory. During the night, diurnal (daytime) birds are at a serious disadvantage. At night they cannot see predators, such as cats, as well as they can during daylight hours and become more vulnerable to them. Birds also have very high metabolism rates and if a bird has not been able to eat enough during the day, there is a very real threat it won’t survive the lower temperatures of spring nights. If a bird doesn’t make it through the night, another bird will move into his territory. So by singing first in the morning advertises the fact that the bird is still around and in control of his area.
The dawn chorus is the loudest during the breeding season.
With the air temperatures cooler than in the daytime, and very little ambient background noise, the bird song can travel up to 20 times further than later in the morning. Birds use this to display their fitness to potential mates by singing loudly. A great amount of energy is needed to sing powerfully, and being very vocal first thing in the morning shows how healthy they are. In fact a bird singing late into spring probably has not paired up.
If you can drag yourself out of bed and get out of the house, before the day starts to dawn, you will be amazed at how much wildlife you can see. Creatures need to feed and the soft grey light before dawn is one of the best times to watch. It’s very surreal. The sky has a look of a cheap duvet about it. Animals take over. Walk through the town centre and you will see ducks window shopping; at the traffic lights instead of cars you could find a flock of seagulls fighting over last night’s kebab. Rooks are perched on the street lights and the ubiquitous pigeons hanging around the unemptied bins. The odd adventurous squirrel ventures out of the park to the alleyway near the bakers. As well as rats and mice, I have seen a gaggle of Greylag geese parading around in the Co-op car park.
Go to one of the parks and you could catch a glimpse of foxes going home after a night’s foraging. If you were to go further to the edge of one of our woods, in the dewy grass toads, frogs, newts and other amphibians move around. You might see deer silhouetted against the morning mist. This is a good time to see them. Not many people are around as they are an hour or two late, deer are less cautious.
As deer heavily depend on the dew for rehydration, they are more active, coming out of the hinterland and protection of the woods and into the surrounding grasslands. The first bees of the day make their first rounds of the morning. Other insects start to join them.
As the first dog walkers of the day start to appear, the animals start to fade into their quiet hidden surroundings as the sun comes up fully and the roar of human life starts to build.
Interestingly there is another dawn chorus, unseen, not of this natural world but still equally part of our planet. Very simply put, surrounding the earth is a magnetosphere (basically a series of magnetic fields just outside our planet’s atmosphere) which protects us from dangerous solar winds in space. At certain times of the day electron particles in these fields can get “overcharged” with energy and start to vigorously move around. As they move they create vibrations which, when listened to through specialist radio equipment, produce sounds eerily similar to bird calls and chirping. The phenomenon is known as an electromagnetic dawn chorus.
Amazing how nature mirrors itself in other, entirely bizarre, strange and wonderful worlds isn’t it?
But of course we are completely oblivious to all this.
So next time you wake up too early, don’t go back to sleep. Open the bedroom window and enjoy the free music of the dawn.
You won’t want to miss a free treat now would you?
Stuart Bullen, of Bourne, trained as a biologist at the University of Sheffield and has worked in the media. He is passionate about nature and the environment and he has worked on various conservation projects with Natural England and other organisations. When possible he likes to tramp around the local nature reserves and woods doing a spot of botany. He has recently qualified as a master gardener with Garden Organic.