The secrets of birdsong

For four months of the year, birds give us this incredible gift of the dawn chorus. But what’s behind it all and which bird sings the sweetest melodies?

We look into the birds behind the impressive dawn chorus we hear every spring, and delve into the secrets of birdsong, and the talented animals singing their hearts out every morning

By Tim Dee

The sun has just come up on a pristine spring morning, you’re suspended about 100ft above the surface of the Earth and hanging over the taiga of the Russian far east. Rising from beneath, as the sun splashes onto the trees, come the first exquisite notes of thrush and warbler as the birds awake and the daylight drilling into their heads drives them to open their beaks and sing.

Your jet-pack (silent, of course) powers up as the sun pulls above the eastern horizon and you move west towards where the remains of the night are losing out to the day; birdsong begins beneath you once more and goes on rolling around the Northern Hemisphere as the spark of spring sunlight ignites the avian choristers. The world is sung into life.

There are rubythroats, then bluethroats, then whitethroats, blackbirds, redstarts, yellowhammers, and on it goes. By the time you’ve circled the globe back to Vladivostok, another day is beginning. For four months of each year, the dawn chorus unfolds like this every day. Birdsong is one of the great gifts Nature gives to the world. It’s a gift that beggars our imaginations, seeming gratuitous or luscious beyond function, but which has, for the birds, as always in Nature, a reason.

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A wren singing. It’s often the male birds that use their voices, to assert their territory and attract a mate

Bird vocalisations are all about meaningful communication. There is an important difference between song and calls. Calls, which almost all birds make, are a form of social exchange—they’re often a way of indicating, for the benefit of others, especially others of the same species, ‘I’m here’ or ‘I am a swan’. They can be warm-hearted and sometimes panic-stricken.

Think of a charm of goldfinches tinkling their metallic music between them as they move along a hedge or a blackbird’s dusk-time chink-ing and chook-ing that gives way to the explosive rattle Songbirds have a syrinx, a highly developed vocal organ or song box, but this doesn’t automatically make them natural-born choristers. The raven is a songbird and has more vocalisations than almost any other.

The Romans, for whom it was a bird of augury, identified 64 different calls. However, few people would admit the raven to their top 10. In one of the black moments of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth speaks of how a raven sounds ‘hoarse’ and she’s right— I hear the call as a repeated earthy cough, a never-ending attempt to clear a throat.

There are certainly better crooners, but all song, regardless of the singer, is basically about sex. Birds do rock ’n’ roll and opera rather than hymns or dirges. Singing is mostly done by males and is usually an assertion of the occupation of a territory (a way of claiming property rights) and an advertisement of a desirable bundle of feathers (‘Choose me not him’). That delirious electrical twizzle you hear at the end of a swallow’s song is a badge of the male’s breeding fitness. The more elaborate those notes, the more likely he is to have good genes. Females know how to read the score.

Some birds have accents and dialects. Your chaffinches will be recognizable to mine, but will sing slightly differently, depending on where they hatched and the bird they learned from. Likewise, how we hear is influenced by what we’ve heard. I hear the chaffinch’s spring song as the accelerating run-up and delivery of a cricket ball, but then I spent a childhood listening to them as a long stop in the outfield.

Most oscine birds learn to sing by listening to their parents. Birds reared as orphans usually can only manage a ghostly, pale version of their species’ song. The bullfinch learns a rather apologetic piping refrain in its nest. However, birdcatchers in Germany knew that, if taken into captivity, a young bullfinch could be taught to sing the most elaborate of tunes. The quiet and retiring bird has the wherewithal to steal almost any show, but in its wild life, a soft piping in a hawthorn answers all of its needs. For some, it seems that most of Nature’s efforts have focused on the song not the singer. Often, the drabbest bird makes the prettiest noise. A skylark, nothing more than a scribble in the sky, sings heavenly music.

The nightingale is nondescript to look at, but poets and lovers have borrowed its song as a stand-in for passion for as long as it’s been known. It’s an amazingly glutted, suggestive sound and it makes me think of the story of the ugly, but vocally gifted Cyrano de Bergerac, who was recruited to speak in the dark and out of sight, thereby to break a heart. The nightingale isn’t my favourite, however. ‘It’s you, blackbird, I love,’ wrote Seamus Heaney in his poem

The Blackbird of Glanmore and I feel the same. Their song is the opposite of a nightmare. Walking back to my Cambridgeshire home across cold fields in early spring, I hear the lovely velvety rope that two or three singing males have slung around our village. It’s a song of the warming earth and is as sweet as jam. It may be commonplace, but I defy anyone to walk on by.

Tim Dee is an author and radio producer, who’s currently working on a book about the spring in Europe

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