The dawn chorus

The songs of birds are delivered most frequently each day for a period of perhaps 40 minutes after daybreak. This early birdsong is known as the dawn chorus.

In a British garden during spring, the song thrush may strike up well before dawn. Soon he will be followed by the robin, blackbird, wren, garden warbler, chiffchaff, hedge sparrow and chaffinch. There is no fixed order in which each species takes its cue from the eastern sky, but there is a genuine tendency for some to start earlier than others. Indeed wren, robin, song thrush and blackbird often burst into song well before daybreak, this natural phenomenon has given rise to such phrases as “up with the lark” and “rise before cockcrow”.

It seems that individuals seeking territories are particularly active immediately after first light, for it is light enough to get about but not light enough to forage. It is, in any case, a cold time of day and the prey of the insect feeder is not yet active. So confrontations take place, but once there is enough light to feed by, both challenger and challenged are presumably diverted by the need to satisfy their hunger. The dusk-chorus is a lesser event but there is a very noticeable increase in song each evening in the British spring.

It is also true that songs carry much better around dawn and dusk because there is less wind at those times of day. Not only is there tranquility, there is also much less background noise (natural and man-made). For these two reasons a typical bird song, it has been calculated, will carry 20 times as well as at noon.

  • Jeffery Boswall
  • Jeffery Boswall (1931-2012) was a natural history broadcaster, film-maker and producer. He is best known for his radio and television work with the BBC Natural History Unit. His notable titles include Animal Magic, The Private Life of the Kingfisher, and Wildlife Safari to Ethiopia. Jeffery co-founded the National Sound Archive's wildlife section with Patrick Sellar in 1969.