WHY DO BIRDS SING SO GAY?
(from the song, “Why Do Fools Fall In Love”, originally by Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers.)
It’s just after five in the morning and I’ve been up an hour. It’s getting lighter by the minute and getting noisier, too. I’m an early bird today because I’m sound recording the dawn chorus, on International Dawn Chorus Day, 1 May 2022. And it sounds sublime.
On my garden terrace, which overlooks Hanger Hill Park, I’ve set up a pair of microphones running to a sound recorder in the house. I’m inside, with the recorder, to keep warm although it is a very mild morning. The main reason is so as not to add any of me to the recording. I just want the birds as they make themselves heard over the sound of the A40. Even at dawn on a Sunday morning the sound of the A40 is there. Ordinarily, when I’m in the garden, I tune out the sound of the road that is about half a mile away. Microphones, however, can’t do that and hear all. But the sound of the vehicles making their way in and out of London is also part of the recording. The birds live with the A40: it’s an urban dawn chorus. They will sing whether it’s there or not. But why are they singing in the first place? They are not singing for me….
The dawn chorus commences about an hour before sunrise and not all of the birds start singing at the same time as if from a musical director’s cue. If I overlooked Warren Farm, one of the first to start singing would be skylarks – there’s some truth to the saying, “up with the lark.” Hanger Hill Park doesn’t have any skylarks but there are plenty of robins, dunnocks, blackbirds and song thrushes to start the chorus off. Corvids join in and smaller, more delicate, birds such as warblers and wrens that are more sensitive to a chilly dawn pipe up when the singing is well underway. Even tawny and little owls may join in along with rhythmical accompaniment from great spotted woodpeckers as they drum in support. (Males hammer against dead trees and other resonant objects to proclaim territory ownership. One regularly uses a nearby ‘phone mast.)
As Dawn’s rosy fingers put the stars to flight it’s still pretty dark and foraging for food is difficult. What better time to sing for a mate or reinforce territory ownership? Singing in broad daylight can be dangerous because it risks the attentions of a predator. It’s best to advertise in dim light before the singer’s position is betrayed. The air is often still and more humid at dawn allowing birdsong to travel much further. (It seems to make the A40’s presence more apparent, too!) As the light strengthens the dawn chorus diminishes as birds drift off on the hunt for food. Singing is hard work and depletes energy reserves which may be at a low ebb after a night’s roost. It is the fittest, best-fed males who sing the strongest, loudest, longest and most impressive song. Females choose a mate who sings best, because such a male is more likely to be good at raising chicks, to have a good territory, or to pass successful genes to their young. In many species, once the female has been attracted, the male will sing less often. A bird that sings on and on, late into the season, is probably a lonely ‘bachelor’ who has failed to attract a mate or perhaps an already paired-up male looking to hook up with another female as with dunnocks with their notoriously complicated ‘love lives.’
The dawn chorus is well worth getting up for or, if you are a night-clubbing, gig-going raver delaying getting into bed for! Listen to the dawn chorus stereo recording that I made, perhaps in its entirety (it’s just over 45 minutes) or just dip in and out. Whichever way you listen simply enjoy nature’s songsters. They will gladden your heart.
The recording was made with a matched pair of AKG C451E microphones, with CK1 capsules, in Rycote Softie windshields. The microphones were arranged as a spaced pair. The digital recorder was a Marantz PMD661 and the file format was WAV with a sampling rate of 48kHz at 24bits. The listening mp3 file is barely edited – faded in and out only.