I have no doubt that so many folk songs* start early on a May morning because it is the most charming time of day or year to be outdoors. The sun is bright soon after it rises and the air is filled with both the heady scent of blossom and the sweet sounds of birds, for whom this is the peak of the singing season. Insomuch as birds are composed of the food they eat, which is in itself a product of the peculiarities of a place – of plant and insect communities determined by local conditions – their song might be called the very voice of the earth itself: the landscape’s character transposed into a musical score.
Like an orchestral symphony, the wonder of the dawn chorus is in the combination of disparate voices: the singular melodies, tones and timbres of each species woven together into a glorious whole. In fact the resulting wall of sound can be so overwhelming that it’s unwise to start surveying birds too close to dawn; better to wait until the sun has come up and the clamour has died down just a little. With concentration, individual singers can then be picked out from the crowd, in much the same way I recall being taught to pick out the different instruments in an orchestra or band during A-level music lessons. A thread between musicology and ornithology.
Of course the dawn chorus is not always overwhelming in a landscape that is degraded, fragmented, and polluted by noise, from which the full richness of bird life has long since departed as a result. In his fascinating book The Great Animal Orchestra, ‘bio-acoustician’ Bernie Krause defines noise as any sound which is out of place; so, in this way, noise is the polar opposite to bird song as I describe it above. When by our actions a species is removed from the wild choir, or when modern human sound invades its acoustic space, the full evolved order of non-human biological sound – what Krause calls ‘biophony’ – is disrupted and diminished. Whilst we celebrate what remains, the English dawn chorus is largely a remnant, a mere tribute band to an act that was forced into retirement generations ago.
Still, if you can escape the traffic noise which, to my dismay, is all too evident in much of Berkshire even before the sun comes up, the avian musical ensemble yet sings with surprising power in our land. Blackbirds, robins, wrens, thrushes and warblers take their cues in turn (not to mention the pesky deafening woodpigeons), building gradually to quite a cacophony, if you’re in an area still densely populated by birds. As it happens (indeed, it’s probably what inspired me to write on this subject), tomorrow is ‘International Dawn Chorus Day’, which started in Birmingham of all places. By chance, I will be up early enough to have a listen on the day itself. I know it’s a lot to ask, but wherever you are in the world** I can’t recommend enough that you follow suit, at least once this spring, and rise with the larks. For the experience of a world in which the birds still just about rule the air waves, it will be worth it.
*e.g. this one
**Those in the southern hemisphere may wish to wait six months…although I gather the tropics enjoy a dawn chorus all year round.