23 February 2021 by Tom Hibbert, The Wildlife Trusts
The warming temperatures and lengthening days switch male songbirds into one-man-bands as they establish and defend territories and seek to woo a mate. This welcome sign of spring is about so much more than a celebration of the season for birds.
A walk in the woods is a soul-soothing experience in any season, but spring is really the time to lose yourself in a world of awakening nature. There are delights for all the senses, from the colourful wildflowers carpeting the forest floor to the earthy scent of petrichor that follows a spring shower. But perhaps the most celebrated change is the one that greets our ears on a sunny spring morning.
Emboldened by the warmer weather and brighter days, birds begin their seasonal serenade. It’s a biological battle of the one-man-bands as males establish territories and seek to woo a mate, all through the medium of song. To our ears it’s a welcome sign of spring, but to the birds exerting their hard-earned energy it’s so much more than a celebration of the season.
Each melodious note is a fencepost around their territory, a border between competing nations. Each verse is both a love letter and a declaration of war, an advertisement to passing females and a warning to encroaching males. These sweet voices mask an unbridled passion and determination; a desperation to succeed and get on with the all-important business of nesting.
We know this spring spectacle as the dawn chorus, but it begins with a few humble soloists. The hardy birds that spend their whole year in the UK, enduring the worst of our winter weather, are the first to test their voices. Robins sing cheerfully from low branches and fenceposts right through winter, with the clear and roaming melody of the mistle thrush ringing out through the latter stages of our harshest season, earning them the nickname of storm cock.
The percussion section starts to warm up from mid-winter, too. Great spotted woodpeckers hammer out a staccato beat against hollow branches, their beaks moving faster than any drummer’s hands. Then, as the new year blossoms and winter fades away, song thrushes strike up their bold, repetitive refrains, singing confidently from the tops of trees. Blackbirds begin to unleash their sonorous song, a familiar and flowing melody that often ends abruptly.
The tits add their own contributions to the swelling soundtrack: a short, piercing ditty from the blue tit and a confident, if less inspired, ‘tea-cher, tea-cher, tea-cher’ from the great tit. In some woodlands, especially where conifers are found, coal tits chime in with their own, higher-pitched, rendition of the great tit’s see-sawing song.
Not to be outdone, the finch family reveals the vocalists in their midst. Goldfinches twitter and greenfinches wheeze and trill from the treetops, the latter occasionally singing on the wing as he traces fluttering circles above the branches. The chaffinch pours out a cascade of descending notes, signed off with an up-slurred flourish, the “ta-da” of a showman taking the stage.
By the time the true virtuosos begin to return from their African wintering grounds in April and May, the chorus is already taking shape. But warblers still manage to raise the bar. Chiffchaff’s belt out their own name in a relentless ‘chiff chaff, chiff chaff’, whilst willow warblers serenade with a silvery stream of descending notes – similar to the chaffinch but sweeter and lacking the final flourish.
Scrubby areas, with plenty of shrubs, resound with the beautiful voices of blackcaps and garden warblers, each a flowing melody pairing scratchy notes with more musical tones. Blackcaps build from a hesitant, scratchy start to a fantastic fluting finish, whereas garden warblers flow more evenly like a gently babbling brook.
This is just a sample of the audio delights on offer, with many more birds adding their voices to the chorus. The combined effect is spellbinding, and one of the greatest experiences nature can offer. Each year The Wildlife Trusts celebrate nature’s great symphony with International Dawn Chorus Day, taking on Sunday 2 May 2021.
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