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May 2, 2012

Enjoy the Bird Songs on International Dawn Chorus Day

—"Always, somewhere, it is dawn, and always, somewhere, the birds are singing." Donald Kroodsma

  • Singing year round in all weather conditions and at all times of day (even sometimes at night), song sparrows are thought to have the most melodious of songs. iStock.com

  • Robins share a common singing rhythm, but individuals vary in song, pitch, and the ability or desire to stick to a particular key or melody. Kathy Milani/The HSUS

  • Bluebirds vary their song little, but singing a bit unsteadily in a minor key gives their voice a tentative quality that is gentle and appealing. iStockphoto.com

  • Though considered lacking in melody and rhythm, the goldfinch’s song seems to convey a chipper mood and sense of humor. iStockphoto.com

  • Plump and short-tailed, the meadowlark often sings its clear, rich whistling song from fence posts. iStockphoto.com

by Debra Firmani

While most of us are still sleeping, birds in their nesting season begin their day by singing to announce their presence, health, and family intentions to others of their kind.

It’s an exciting 3-hour musical phenomenon that builds to a crescendo in volume, speed, and variety by sunrise, then trails off as the sky lightens enough for foraging to begin.

International Dawn Chorus Day (IDCD)—an annual celebration of birdsong that began in the U.K.—has spread around the globe and is now in its 28th year. Because most people are often so busy or tired that they fail to notice the beauty of birdsong, IDCD’s aim is to get more people to notice and enjoy the dawn chorus in its springtime fullness.

May 6 is this year’s official celebration, but the concert will continue daily through early summer.

Why so early?

Nesting season is brief, so male birds must quickly claim territories and attract mates. Song is their primary means of accomplishing both. Some birds also sing during an ongoing courtship, or to re-establish bonding with a former mate. But why must they sing so early in the morning?

  • Cool, damp, calm morning air transmits sound best, making it easier to be heard.
  • Dawn is the perfect time for a bird to announce that he survived another night and is still defending his territory.
  • Female birds arriving after a night of migration listen for males defending territories, making dawn an ideal time to advertise for a mate.

Where and when to listen

Woodlands may have the best variety of bird species singing, but birds are everywhere, so no one needs to feel left out of celebrating the dawn chorus.

Check websites of local parks, nature reserves, and Audubon sanctuaries for dawn chorus events, or simply listen in city parks or suburban gardens.

Begin listening as close as possible to the start of the dawn chorus to get a sense of how it builds (that's 4 a.m. in northern/temperate areas and 6 a.m. farther south).

Help birds have a good nesting season

 Make your yard a welcoming place for birds, and you’ll have more birds to see and hear!

  • Maintain your lawn without harmful chemicals.
  • Plant native trees, bushes, flowers, and grasses.
  • Maintain a brush pile for safe cover and make nesting materials like twigs, leaves, pet fur, string, and wool available.
  • Provide a constant source of clean water for drinking and bathing.
  • Keep cats indoors, and encourage others to do the same.

Whether you rise early and head outside to hear the dawn chorus at full volume or opt to listen to it through an open window while still snuggling under your comforter, remember the birds’ challenges during the nesting season, and do all you can to help them!

Create a sanctuary

Enjoy the company of your wild neighbors in your own yard. Every day, more and more wildlife habitat is lost to the spread of development. But you can help wild animals in urban and suburban areas by offering them sanctuary in your own backyard (or front yard, roof-top garden, or deck), no matter how small. Learn how your green space can become an Urban Wildlife Sanctuary.

Debra Firmani is a writer and long-time advocate for animals and nature. Her articles on wildlife, wild lands, backyard habitat creation, and nature education have appeared in print and online.

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