The Dawn Chorus

Updated: Aug 17, 2020

School starts on Monday for students here in Redding, CA, and the kids are stuck at home. Chances are, you are stuck at home. Teachers are changing lives, not one student at a time, but one screen at a time. Kids need a way to blow off steam that isn’t a ninth hour of screen time. Parents need a way to take their mind off of the unique challenges they face today. Teachers need some way to provide at-home activities that aren’t bound to the virtual format.

I hope to help with all of this if I can.

In the era of public park shutdowns, I’ve come to realize that Bekah and I have an escape just outside our walls. Almost all of the skills I use in my environmental field work still apply in my own yard. Even if you live in a highly urbanized area, you can enjoy the habitat value of your home if you know what to look and listen for.

This is Wildlife Hack #1: The Dawn Chorus

When it comes to enjoying nature, birds are a special group of animals. You don’t need to see these vocal creatures to enjoy them; you just need to listen. With some focused attention, you can easily experience a bird species or two calling outside your home. Habitat such as trees, shrubs, and cacti provide needed perching and roosting locations, as well as foraging opportunities. Even if vegetation is largely absent, many urban-adapted birds will take advantage of a nice perch on a telephone pole or your gutters. We’ve all seen the bands of mourning doves and pigeons silently judging us from atop the electrical wires.

Even a cactus can support avian life. Photo Credit: Douglas Bruns

The diversity of avian life around your home is probably much greater than you realize if you haven’t ever tuned in on it. Fortunately, only one thing is needed to tune in: Wake up early.

There’s a reason why we say things like “the early bird catches the worm”, and why I begin my nesting bird surveys a half hour before sunrise. The time before sunrise is a crucial moment for birds, who are remarkably social and communicative creatures.

The hours before sunrise stimulate the Dawn Chorus in birds. Did you figure out the hint from last week?

Before sunrise, many species of birds participate in what’s known as the Dawn Chorus. The Dawn Chorus is a period of increased vocal activity unrivaled by any other time of the day. As these various species communicate through songs and calls, we get the privilege of experiencing this unintended synthesis of sound. Generally, the dawn chorus is an orchestra of winged instruments, though a woodpecker might throw in some percussion now and then.

I captured this photo of a black-backed woodpecker through a pair of binoculars.

Research suggests that the Dawn Chorus is a complex phenomenon, and several hypotheses have been put forth to explain it. In general, male birdsong has been shown to attract female mates as well as keep those females interested during the duration of the breeding season [1]. This birdsong is thought to be so attractive because it takes energy and therefore demonstrates the male’s health.

Imagine Maroon 5’s Adam Levine. He must keep himself in good shape so he can perform with vigor during his shows. On the other hand, someone who smokes regularly and does little cardiovascular exercise would quickly run out of breath onstage. In the same way, birds spend precious limited energy when they sing; research demonstrates that male birds who sing more complex songs and can sustain these songs for longer periods of time are more attractive to females [2].

It is possible that the early morning hours before sunrise offer a great opportunity for male birds to sing, in that whatever extra energy they have from the previous day can be promptly channeled into intense wooing [2]. This assures, the hypothesis goes, that the most healthy and well-fed males will attract the most females, and those males will produce the best offspring.

Another hypothesis suggests that the Dawn Chorus is related to territorial defense rather than the seeking and guarding of mates. Each evening, birds select a spot to bed down for the night. Especially during mating season, territorial male birds will vociferously defend their land, with force if necessary. In this way, aggressive territorial bird calls can prevent dangerous fights from occurring between two birds. This hypothesis suggests the Dawn Chorus revolves around communication between males.

Male birds who are still searching for their own territory know to stay away from an area when the male occupying that territory makes his presence known. In words, the message would be pretty clear: “I live here and I didn’t die last night, so back off or pay the price.” Usually, the message is quickly received without conflict, and the roaming males will look for an unoccupied area. While territorial defense calls are used throughout the day, research has shown that roaming nightingales tend to do most of their territorial searches during the hours of the Dawn Chorus, suggesting that defense is crucial before sunrise [3].

So which hypothesis holds more weight? Birds are a very diverse group of animals, and the Dawn Chorus probably serves different purposes for different species. Fortunately for us, we don’t have to fully understand the phenomenon to enjoy it.

To experience the Dawn Chorus, you’ll need to know exactly when sunrise is and plan accordingly. A quick google search informed me that Saturday’s sunrise here in Redding occurred at 6:14am. Had I crawled out of bed at 6:14, the most vibrant portion of the Dawn Chorus would have already passed. This is because birds don’t think of sunrise as we do; they operate on light and temperature-based cues. Long before that yellow ball in the sky becomes visible to us, its light has already begun illuminating our side of the earth.

So, wake up before sunrise. Try to have that coffee brewed. Set up near a nice tree, perch, or powerline, and take a listen as the world turns from eerily silent to Alfred Hitchcock’s worst nightmare.

I convinced Bekah that it would be a good idea to wake up early on a weekend, and we spent our Saturday morning listening to the Dawn Chorus in our backyard. From 5:45am to 6:15am, I counted 21 distinct bird vocalizations. Now this doesn’t mean that 21 different species were present, because many species have calls that are distinct from their songs [4]. But that's a topic for next week. For now, how many vocalizations can you identify during your Dawn Chorus experience?

Until next time!

I sincerely hope this wildlife hack has helped you, your children, or your students get away from your screens and into nature. If you enjoy what I'm doing, feel free to reach out with questions or suggested topics at

Educational Sources:

  1. Leen Gorissen, & Marcel Eens. (2004).Interactive communication between male and female great tits (Parus major) during the dawn chorus. The Auk,121(1), 184-191.

  2. Barnett, Craig A, & Briskie, James V. (2006). Energetic state and the performance of dawn chorus in silvereyes (Zosterops lateralis). Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology,61(4), 579-587.

  3. Valentin Amrhein, Hansjoerg P. Kunc, & Marc Naguib. (2004). Non–territorial nightingales prospect territories during the dawn chorus. Proceedings of the Royal Society. B, Biological Sciences, 271(Suppl_4), S167-S169.

  4. Pérez-Granados, Cristian, Osiejuk, Tomasz S, & López-Iborra, Germán M. (2018). Dawn chorus interpretation differs when using songs or calls: The Dupont's Lark Chersophilus duponti case. PeerJ (San Francisco, CA), 6, E5241.

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