The dawn chorus

By Chris Jarvis, Education Officer

With the noises of the hectic morning commute temporarily silenced, it has never been a better spring to enjoy the sounds of the dawn chorus. If you are able to get out early it’s a great way to reduce some of the stresses of lockdown. But if you can’t, or would rather have a lie-in, here we bring a little of the dawn chorus to you.

The video above shows the beautiful grounds of Harcourt Arboretum, a site a few miles outside Oxford that is part of Oxford University’s Gardens, Libraries and Museums. The chirruping, tweeting soundtrack was recorded at the start of the pandemic lockdown, and is an excerpt from 50 minutes of uninterrupted dawn chorus which you can listen to in full here (recommended background while WFH!):

The enveloping sound of the dawn chorus is an ensemble piece, but who are the individual players? To hone your birdsong identification skills and practice picking out individual songs of some common British birds, Andy Gosler at the Edward Grey Institute for Ornithology has put together this beautiful resource.

So now we’re in the zone, let’s find out a little more about the dawn chorus and how it’s made.

A sense of dawn
Why are so many birds singing at dawn and not at another time of day? There are several good reasons which may explain this.

At dawn, there are fewer other environmental noises cluttering the airwaves and the air density and temperature allow sound to travel further. Many migrant birds arrive in the UK overnight and early morning, and those that are ready to breed begin looking for mates and territories early in the day. So singing at this time stakes a clear claim to new arrivals and announces that the territory is already taken.

For insectivorous birds and those that use sight to find food, dawn is the least profitable time to search. Insects are more dormant in colder temperatures and food less easy to spot in dawn’s lower light levels and early morning mists. It’s a better use of time and energy to sing!

But why spring? What triggers birds to start singing? It clearly makes sense to breed at this time of year when there is a steady supply of food, as insect population growth coincides with the re-growth of the plants that feed many insects.

But the real trigger is day length. Increased light boost hormones in birds that spark incredible physiological changes. Unlike humans, birds have an amazing ability to reduce and increase the size of various organs according to their use, carefully regulating the amount of energy expended by those organs.

Robin

The Robin (Erithacus rubecula), Britain’s national bird, is one of the many voices contributing to the dawn chorus. Image: Scott Billings

Shifting sounds
As hormone levels increase, not only do birds’ sexual organs increase in size ready for the breeding season, but the part of their brains dedicated to sound processing and sensitivity also increases, meaning that birds’ hearing abilities fluctuate throughout the year.

Imagine not being able to recognise what people were saying or who was talking in winter, then suddenly being able to pick out every minute difference in tone, volume and timbre in spring! When you listen to the cacophony that is the dawn chorus, this is exactly what each bird is doing – recognising each individual and its territorial and breeding condition – and many birds show less acuity for this outside the breeding season.

Sound location also improves. Humans have relatively large, wide heads and this allows us to judge the direction a sound is coming from by detecting the slight differences heard by each ear. With their tiny heads, birds cannot do this when their heads are still, so they move their heads around a lot to help locate sounds.

You might be thinking that with such sensitive hearing birds would be in danger of going deaf during a raucous dawn chorus. But they have another adaptive trick up their sleeves. Inside the inner ears are tiny cilia, or hairs, that detect the vibrations of sound. In mammals, these hairs gradually diminish over time and don’t grow back, but birds have the ability regrow cilia throughout their lives!

Hidden music
Birds are also able to process birdsong much more quickly and fully than we can, hearing things that our brains are just too slow to cope with. Whilst we may love the musicality of the dawn chorus, we are actually missing many of the individual notes.

A verdant scene at Harcourt Arboretum

Sonograms of bird songs show that where humans often hear just a couple of notes there may be several more emitted at rapid speed.

How do they do it? We sing by passing air over flaps of skin in our sound-producing organ, the larynx, a bit like blowing over a piece of grass trapped between your thumbs. But birds have separately evolved another and more impressive way of singing. They don’t just have one organ to produce song, they have two – called syrinx.

Syrinx are more like drum skins that can be tightened or loosened by muscles as sound passes over them. They can be operated independently or together enabling a single bird to sing a chord of several notes at the same time in harmony with itself!

Time to tune in to the dawn chorus and marvel at the complex, beautiful phenomenon of birdsong…

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