A Birthday and a cheeky phone call
International Dawn Chorus Day has its origins in the United Kingdom, where Chris Baines, a wildlife expert and broadcaster, successfully cajoled his friends (with some champagne) into getting up just before dawn on his birthday in early May in 1984 and heading out to the local reserve to listen to one of nature’s most spectacular aural phenomena. Several friends were unable to make the journey to join him so instead he suggested they just go and do it where they are yet united in their love of birds across the brightening skies.
Everyone’s feedback was profound – what a way to welcome the day and be immersed in nature and forget about your own lives for a while, also in the knowledge that lots of others are doing this communal event elsewhere at the same time.
In early spring the following year, Baines contacted the BBC to let them know – just in case they weren’t aware – that the first Sunday in May is International Dawn Chorus Day. This inspired, good-hearted manipulation paid off, and the Today Programme subsequently announced to the country the very same thing. Since then, the event has grown exponentially in popularity and is indeed now internationally celebrated in over 80 countries worldwide.
A well-stocked larder and battle cries
But what is the dawn chorus? Birds sing every day, but in the spring, this vocal act reaches an almost deafening peak in the early hours of each morning as resident and arriving migrants compete, calling out to other members of their species to seek out mates and equally importantly, defend territory.
The singing you hear in the morning is usually performed by male songbirds, although many species have very vocal females that likely chime in too. But consider the situation – usually it is still quite cold in the mornings in spring and a frost can still spike the grasses and leaves; most birds rarely feed at night. So what you potentially have is a cold and hungry bird awake when it’s too dark to find food, but still they sing while the air is clear and predators sleep on.
Making so much noise uses up a lot of energy, which means that only the strongest, best-fed males will produce the loudest songs. This way, they demonstrate to females that they are fit, healthy and have access to plenty of food.
Scientists believe that a loud song also serves as a deterrent for any rival males who may be looking to move in – territory is key to a successful brood. If you can successfully make enough noise that frightens away any would-be claimants to your patch, you’ve got a great advantage over others for winning that mate over and starting a family right away in earnest.
A sad irony of recent times does mean that in some places in the world, the dawn chorus is becoming much louder as human activity, traffic noise and pollution in the air impacts how well their song carries, as well as the increasing scarcity of habitat as more and more is lost. But with that situation, one can only hope that those highly vocal males are even more successful in their pair-bond and new chicks are not far behind to further the family line and inherit those battle cries when their time comes.
If you want to know who is shouting at who and your aural ID skills are a bit rusty, there are some fantastic sound ID apps available for free that you can install just for the event and are so easy to use. Most people around the world can access Merlin and BirdNET from Cornell University; Warblr, and Song Sleuth among many others.
One of the key reasons for the popularity of International Dawn Chorus Day is the opportunity it provides for citizen science. There are many events similar to International Dawn Chorus Day in most months of the year where people are invited to record and share information about the birds they see and hear. Events like Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count, RSPB’s Big Garden Watch, and Nestwatch happen every year, so seek out your local wildlife organization and see what they hold.
On International Dawn Chorus Day, you can share your enjoyment with the conservationists tasked with finding out how well species are doing by recording what you hear and then submitting it for analysis. BIOTOPIA, a museum in Munich, Germany focuses on the relationship between humans and nature and each year, BIOTOPIA hosts a series of events and activities including guided bird walks, workshops on bird identification to celebrate International Dawn Chorus Day. They also have a dedicated website where you can upload your recordings of the dawn chorus from anywhere in the world. The rest is up to them, but without you, they wouldn’t be able to have such far-reaching access, a monumental task for just a few people but a mere walk in the predawn park when thousands help out.
Aside from helping conservationists, participating can be a rewarding experience for several reasons, such as it gives you the perfect opportunity to learn more about the birds in your local area and develop a deeper appreciation for nature. By recording the birds you hear, you can become more familiar with their songs and behavior, gaining a greater understanding of their role in the ecosystem that you share with them. Understanding how everything links is crucial to implementing change for the good.
Then, there’s what you personally get out of it. Despite the early rise (and remember, you can always go back to bed afterwards) taking part can have wonderful positive effects on your mental and physical health. Listening to birdsong has been proven to have a calming effect on the body and mind, reducing stress and anxiety. Stress is a killer, linked to 90% of all illnesses; by treating yourself to this once-a-year event, you could be opening the door to a healthier and more alert you.
Birdsong has also long been a source of inspiration for artists, musicians, and writers, and has been celebrated in literature and art throughout history. Who knows, maybe a 4.30am start on Sunday May 7th, 2023, is exactly what your inner creative spark needs.
International Dawn Chorus Day is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the beauty and diversity of birds, potentially discover a new hobby, and certainly boost your health. It also provides the world with the perfect opportunity to help turn the tables on the decline in bird species by telling conservationists what and who you hear, even if you don’t know yourself. Just record and send, and let the analysts do their thing, and you can go back to bed knowing that their song has not only helped you feel better, but helped them stay alive.