Spring is here at last in the Northern Hemisphere and no doubt you’ve had the chance to enjoy the early morning bird songs. The Dawn Chorus, as it is called, usually begins about 40 minutes before sunrise.
Why do birds sing in the early morning? There are several theories. One is that the songs carry better in the early morning and birds sing to advertise that they made it through the night and are therefore good mates and formidable foes. Early rising birds have better relationships with their mates than sleepy birds of the same species so maybe there is some truth to this.
Another idea is that it is too dark to look for food so singing is a great way to pass the time. Birds with bigger eyes and those who perch higher up in trees tend to sing first.
Gaining popularity is the theory that birds sing when other things are quiet. In places where there are noisy morning insects, birds sing before the insects start making noise. It’s thought that urban birds like to sing before the city gets noisy. Daylight plays a role in telling birds when to sing. It stimulates testosterone in the birds and brings on mating season.
It was first thought that birds sang haphazardly but in the 1940s, conservationist Aldo Leopold noticed that there was a pattern to their singing with a distinct order of birds joining the chorus, prompted by the amount of daylight. What birds are you most likely to hear in the morning? Starting things off in Iowa is the robin, the traditional early bird who gets the worm. Cardinals follow soon after. In the Pella area, field sparrows, indigo buntings, eastern wood pewees, black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, and house wrens are common members of the dawn chorus. In Leopold’s audio recording, the Wisconsin birds appear in this order: American Robin (first heard at 1 seconds) 2. Field Sparrow (28s) 3. Indigo Bunting (70s) 4. Eastern Wood-Pewee (100s) 5. Song Sparrow (130s) 6. Gray Catbird (150s) 7. Eastern Bluebird (170s) 8. Great Crested Flycatcher (181s) 9. Northern Cardinal (200s) 10. Wood Thrush (207s) 11. Mourning Dove (214s) 12. Ring-necked Pheasant (223s) 13. Eastern Meadowlark (230s) 14. Brown Thrasher (251s) 15. Warbling Vireo (270s) 16. House Wren (280s) 17. Blue Jay (290s)
There are two categories of singing birds. Oscine or true Song Birds must learn to sing from other males. It can take up to a year for a bird to come into his voice. Here is an example of a male sparrow learning to sing. This type of bird usually is monogamous and has to work hard to attract and keep a mate. They perch on high branches to advertise and have regional dialects. In some cases, such as the cardinal, both males and females sing. Suboscine birds are more common in South America but include flycatchers here in North America. These birds instinctively know how to sing.
The first Sunday in May is Dawn Chorus Day. Should you desire to get up early to celebrate and identify the birds by their song, click this link.
I forgot to set my alarm last night and am grateful for the loud robin who woke me up this morning. Birdsong is both relaxing and mentally stimulating. It’s the right mix of repetitiveness and jazz. It doesn’t get annoyingly stuck in your mind nor is it chaotic noise. It’s even being used to treat depression and anxiety. It’s a wild love song and who can argue with the joy of that? I’m opening my windows and letting it pour in.