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May 18

Wildlife Wednesday: Dawn Chorus

High Wood Binfield Heath Bluebells

If your children have become super early risers in the last month of so then there is a silver lining to that sleep-deprived cloud. Along with the natural alarm clock of lighter mornings and sunnier skies also comes a fantastic audio track of nature’s finest conjuring. The dawn chorus is back and it is well worth a listen.

In the last few weeks I have had a couple of early wakes and it has been wonderful to throw open the windows and let the sound of bird song flood inside with the cool morning air as I retreat back under my duvet to listen. Things begin about an hour before dawn when birds like the blackbird and robin start things off. Soon other birds join in and before long it becomes impossible to distinguish individual voices in this wonderful natural cacophony. The chorus peaks either side of dawn before tailoring off to normal bird activity around 40-60 minutes after sunrise.

The dawn chorus is at its best between April and July, with the peak time around May. The birds are singing to attract mates and mark out territories and as more migratory birds return with the warmer weather, the chorus swells further. It’s thought that once birds find a mate they quieten down and stop making such an effort (I guess relationships are the same across human and animal kingdom!) making me feel for those lonely hearts still singing their souls out at the end of the season!

For those learning to recognise a bird or two by its call then the start of the chorus is a brilliant time to pick out individual voices. The air is often calm at this time and there is very little background noise, making the bird song crystal clear on fine days.

Pheasants

Some of our visiting garden pheasants…the late risers it seems of our local dawn chorus.

Whilst we live in the countryside and hear birds like the seemingly lazy lay-in pheasant joining in towards the end of the chorus, cities are by no means exempt from dawn chorus action. In fact there is research to suggest that birds sing louder and at higher frequency in the city, so as to be heard above the constant noise of traffic and urban life. As a result, the dawn chorus whilst perhaps not always quite as varied in species, is still impressive with the reduction in background noise amplifying its effects.

If you are prepared to get up and out at such an early hour then it’s worth a visit to your local nature reserve, with many of them putting on special guided dawn chorus events, some of which children are also welcome to join. Do check early morning opening hours/access though. City dwellers are not exempt – there are often nature reserves lurking in the middle of even the busiest cities, with London Wetlands Centre a good example in the UK capital. Check out the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts’ events pages for details of events close to you. Parks, woodland and other open spaces are also perfect but do take the obvious safety precautions at a quiet time of day. Make a mini-adventure of it for the kids with a picnic breakfast and hot choc from a thermos!

You don’t need to go out at all though. An open window will do the trick. The video below features an audio clip I took from an open window a few days ago of our garden birds at dawn. Not exactly shy and retiring are they?! The photos are from a recent family breakfast in the bluebells adventure we went on – not quite as much bird song going on as at dawn but we still heard plenty.


 In our household we are, at the moment (I’m tempting fate here), blessed with children who sleep in until after the birds have risen. Whilst I have been tempted, there is no way I am waking a sleeping preschool child during a regular week so our dawn chorus listening will have to wait until our upcoming early start for the airport. Spring and summer camping trips are also a great opportunity to tune into nature sounds with little ones – I find ours never sleep late under canvas!

Alternatively, take some time around dusk to slip outdoors with the kids and listen to the birds’ bedtime songs. The chorus at dusk is not so loud or intense as at dawn and there is a bit more background noise but it is still there, with many territorial birds preferring this time when other noises have dimmed to stake out their homes one last time before nightfall. In the city, where competition to be heard is even tighter, the birds have even been known to continue singing into the night.

If dawn and dusk are just not possible then do go for a family stroll in woodland over the coming weeks. The birds still sing during the day and I always find that amongst a mass of trees, bird song seems to be amplified. If you live in the north you may even catch the end of bluebell season whilst you are there, though they are all fading now in our Oxfordshire woods.

As for those sleepy-eyed parents with the enthusiastic mini early-risers? Throw those windows open, let spring in and slink back to bed whilst the kids compete to see who can hear the most different birds’ songs in half an hour. Who knows, it might just work!

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