The dawn chorus is the beautiful sound of spring, but why is it so important to birds, and which birds join the choir?
Why Morning Songs Matter
Birds sing for many reasons – attracting a mate by showing off their health and vocal prowess, defending a territory by advertising their strength to predators and communicating with other birds in the neighborhood. Singing in the morning has many advantages for birds, particularly in the spring when singing for mates and territory is so critical for courtship and breeding.
- Morning songs show off health and strength. If a bird can sing loud and proud early in the morning, it is proving that it is strong and healthy enough to have survived another night. This means it escaped any nocturnal predators and went without foraging for hours, yet is still able to sing bright and early without first hunting for food or replenishing itself. This can be very attractive to a mate looking for the best partner, while at the same time it can be very discouraging for competition because a very good bird is already in control of the area.
- There is less ambient noise during the morning hours. The earlier birds sing during the day, the less their song has to compete with other noises such as insect buzzing, rising breezes, other animal sounds or even artificial sounds such as traffic, construction or general human noise. This allows a bird's song to carry further with less disruption, making it an even more powerful tool for communicating with other birds.
- Sound is clearer and more easily heard in the morning. Cooler morning air is often still, with fewer breezes and less wind. In these conditions, a bird's song will be clear and easily distinguished even from greater distances, since there are fewer wind currents or air movements to disrupt the sound waves. While the sound will not necessarily carry much further in overall distance, it will be clearer and more distinct at its outermost limit in the morning.
Birds That Join the Chorus
Nearly all songbirds have some part of the dawn chorus, though many sing only sporadically or are not as adept with their vocalizing. Some popular and familiar birds, however, have prominent parts in the dawn chorus, and are easily distinguished. The most common birds singing during the early morning hours include…
- American robins
- House sparrows
- Brown thrashers
- Gray catbirds
- House finches
- Northern cardinals
- Eastern bluebirds
- Song sparrows
- Carolina wrens
- Northern mockingbirds
- Tufted titmice
Not all birds sing at the same time, however. While any bird may unexpectedly join in when it feels the urge, generally the worm-eating birds (robins and other thrushes) are the earliest singers, joined a bit later by insect-eating species. The last additions to the chorus are the seed-eating birds. This specific lineup of singers is related to how the birds find food, including their eyesight and how much light they need to effectively forage. Larger birds with larger eyes can be up earlier in the morning, and therefore they start singing first!
Quieting the Chorus
While many birders enjoy the dawn chorus, it can be a bit overwhelming to have many birds singing lustily as early as 4-4:30 a.m. on a spring or summer day, especially when the concert may continue for 3-4 hours or longer, completely disrupting the last part of any sleep you'd hoped to get. If you prefer a quieter morning, there are ways to gently mute the chorus without hurting the birds.
- Close windows at night to keep noise outside.
- Use white noise such as a fan or sound machine to cover early bird songs.
- Prune perches where birds are singing to encourage them to hold concerts elsewhere.
- Remove bird feeders in the evening so early birds go to a different breakfast buffet.
- Consider wearing earplugs or take other steps to minimize the noise you hear.
When all else fails, go birding in the morning, practice your birding by ear skills and enjoy the moving melody that is a spring and summer dawn chorus!
Image by Bob Walker