The Dawn Chorus: A Complete Guide

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The Dawn Chorus: A Complete Guide

Each spring, vast numbers of birds band together in a chorus of song and vocalisation - the dawn chorus.

While the term ‘dawn chorus’ was coined in the UK, the phenomenon is experienced in any temperate region where birds experience a typical spring breeding season. However, even in tropical climates, birds tend to sing more in the morning than any other time of day.

Singing is a massive component of birds’ evolution and behaviour. Researchers are still trying to understand the finer details of why birds sing, but we know that singing is an important part of how birds attract a mate.

The morning is generally quiet, still and relatively safe - it’s the perfect time for birds to kickstart their day by breaking into song!

A reed warbler singing in reeds during sunrise

What is the dawn chorus?

The term “dawn chorus” refers to the collective calls and vocalisations of birds in the morning. While the dawn chorus is loudest and clearest in the spring breeding season, it continues throughout much of summer until early autumn.

Most birds are diurnal and begin to wake up once the sun comes up. The sunlight triggers morning vocalisations when the desire to breed is also high, though birds continue to sing even after they’ve attracted a mate, partly to defend their territories.

The loudest voices in the dawn chorus are male. This is because male birds sing in the breeding season to attract a mate, and also to defend their territories and nest.

Most songbird females do also sing, but primarily in the middle and late breeding season to defend their nest and territories, and also to call for the males during incubation. One study of 1,000 songbirds found that some 64% of the females sing.

Why do birds sing in the morning?

Birds sing in the morning as they’re awoken by the sun, but also because the morning is safe, quiet and still.

The morning is too dark for most diurnal predators to hunt, and it’s also too dark for birds to forage. This essentially makes the morning the best ‘spare time’ for birds to exercise their lungs and sing to prospective mates.

Moreover, lower humidity and cooler temperatures allow sound to travel further in the morning, enabling bird calls to penetrate deeper into the forest. In urban areas, noise pollution affects the time that birds sing, as they adjust their habits to avoid conflicting with ambient noise. This shows that birdsong is sensitive to ambient sounds, hence why they pick a quiet time of day to express their vocalisations with minimal interference.

Blackbirds are one of the most common birds to hear in the dawn chorus

There are four main explanations for why the dawn chorus is so pronounced:

The morning is nice and quiet

The morning is typically still, dry and calm. The air pressure is just beginning to rise from its overnight lows, and as colder air close to the surface of the earth mixes with the warming air above it, the wind speed drops.

This makes birdsong louder and clearer in the early morning than at any other time of day, which many attest to when they’re trying to sleep in the early morning!

The earliest singers are potentially also the fittest

The earlier a bird sings, the more fit the females may perceive it to be. Birds may sing early in the morning to prove they survived the night and are up and ready to go - these are factors that might signal fitness to a potential mate.

Birds have more free time in the morning

Birds don’t tend to forage until a little later in the day, after sunrise. Insects are still inactive at dawn, and mammals are only just starting to stir from their dens and burrows. The still morning air currents are also unideal for flying any great distance. As such, birds have more free time in the morning, and singing is the obvious choice to spend that time, especially during the breeding season!

Relatively safe conditions

Since many nocturnal predators are retreating by dawn and diurnal predators are yet not awake and alert, the morning is a relatively safe time for birds to expose themselves by singing. Dawn is an excellent time for birds to express themselves without risking exposure to diurnal predators.

The song thrush is a common and familiar sight across gardens in the UK

Where can I hear the dawn chorus?

In mid spring, you can hear the dawn chorus practically anywhere. You can even hear the chatterings and calls of Robins, Great tits, Blue tits, Coal tits, Chaffinches and Wood pigeons in inner-city areas.

Any deciduous or coniferous woodland areas are likely to feature larger populations of birds, as are farmlands, moors and wetlands.

Here are some famous spots for listening to the dawn chorus:

Barkbooth Lot, Crosthwaite, Cumbria

A well-known area of fell land and oak woodland. Features many uncommon birds such as Greater spotted and Green woodpeckers, Chiffchaffs, Treecreepers, Mistle thrushes and Redpolls and potentially also the rare Hawfinch.

Lytes Carey, Somerset

This Tudor manor house in Somerset showcases a rather cacophonous dawn chorus of over 20 species of birds. Features warblers, finches and thrushes, including the less common Reed bunting and Linnet.

Minsmere, Suffolk

The Minsmere coastal nature reserve features a huge variety of coastal and aquatic birds such as Bitterns and Avocets. A beautiful sunrise makes this an especially magical place to listen to the dawn chorus. The Bittern has a particularly impressive morning call.

Mere Sands Wood, Ormskirk, Lancashire

Home to many songbirds, including Song thrush, Robins, Blackbirds, Coal tits, Blue tits, Nuthatch and Bullfinch. Features lots of spring visitors that are absent during the winter.

Mount Stewart, County Down, Northern Ireland

Close to Belfast, Mount Stewart is famous for its rather humid microclimate with very few frosts, allowing tropical plants to flourish. Birds include Song thrushes, Chiffchaff, warblers and finches of various kinds.

For their size, Chaffinches can be extremely loud when it comes to singing

What time is the dawn chorus?

The dawn chorus is said to start around half an hour before sunrise, but some birds can start as early as 3am! Moonlight and weather conditions are thought to play a role in when the dawn chorus starts - warm, well-lit nights might have some early risers such as Blackbirds and Robins singing earlier than usual.

As a rule of thumb, it’s best to head out around an hour before sunrise - around 5am or so - if you want to listen to the dawn chorus.

What month does the dawn chorus start? 

The dawn chorus starts as early as mid-March if the weather is suitably mild. It peaks in late April and May when the temperature begins to rise without the threat of a late frost.

Birds start to arrive back in the UK from their winter migrations in late March too, which swells the chorus with more voices. The spring breeding season is in full swing once the UK’s birds are safely home from their wintering grounds.

 A Eurasian Blue Tit amongst the spring blossom

What month does the dawn chorus end?

While the dawn chorus continues throughout the whole of summer until late August and even September, it peaks in July and begins to wind down towards autumn.

The length of the breeding season varies depending on the temperature - a warm August and mild September may see some birds attempt to raise late broods. So long there's breeding and territorial behaviour, there will be some form of dawn chorus.

What birds sing in the dawn chorus?

Many birds partake in the dawn chorus. Some common birds that you’re likely to hear across most of the UK include:

Depending on the habitat, you might also hear:

  • Moorland: Curlew, Golden plover, Redshank and Skylark
  • Urban: Feral and Wood pigeon, herring gull, Goldfinch, Blue tit and Great tit 
  • Wetland: Sedge warbler, Bittern, Reed warbler and Reed bunting 
  • Woodland: Redstart, Green and Great spotted woodpeckers

Globally, the dawn chorus is formed by practically any and all songbirds. In North America, the dawn chorus features the chickadees, juncos, cardinals, tanagers and grosbeaks. In New Zealand, the Tui and Bellbird are prolific singers in the dawn chorus.

Wood Pigeons have one of the most easily distinguishable calls

What does a dawn chorus sound like?

The dawn chorus starts off rather soft with just a few early risers participating; usually the blackbird and robin. Even a handful of robins and blackbirds can make a lot of noise on quiet mornings!

As sunrise approaches, the dawn chorus evolves as each species of bird joins the ensemble. Wrens, tits and warblers join in, accompanied by the loud call of the Common pheasant and the low pitched coo of the Wood pigeon and Collared dove.

The dawn chorus becomes somewhat cacophonous once a few species are singing together, especially on a still and quiet night. However, different species often take their ‘slot’ in the chorus without interrupting others. After all, there’s little point in one bird playing its solo over another - the goal is to be heard!

What is the best time to hear the dawn chorus?

Peaking around late May and June, the dawn chorus starts as early as March and carries on until August, especially on a hot year. The dawn chorus starts some 30-minutes to an hour before sunrise, which may be as early as 4am or so in late spring. Robins and thrushes may rise earlier still - the first singers can take the stage around 3am.

If you want to experience the dawn chorus, it’s best to head out before 5am. Arriving before the birds begin to sing means that you won’t disturb them, and also means you can get nice and comfortable before the first few birds take to the stage!

Robins are usually one of the first birds to sing in the dawn chorus

Why is it called the dawn chorus?

Most birds are diurnal and begin to wake up in the morning, as it first starts getting light. The morning is an excellent time to sing - it’s quiet, still and still dark enough for birds to conceal themselves from predators.

What is the first bird to sing in the morning?

In the UK, the Robin and Blackbird are the first two birds to sing in the morning (usually the Robin). Robins are sometimes active 2-hours before sunrise, at 3am or 4am. If the ‘early bird catches the worm’ then the Robin and Blackbird are first in line!

Is there a dawn chorus in the winter?

While the dawn chorus may continue until early autumn in a warmer, milder year, winter signals the definitive end of the breeding season in temperate regions such as the UK and North America.

In winter, resident birds stop breeding and attempt to feed to put on weight ahead of colder weather. Others ready themselves for migration, which also involves putting on weight as energy reserves for the journey ahead.

Great Tit during in the spring, perched in a tree

Is the dawn chorus all year round?

The dawn chorus is relatively confined to the traditional spring breeding season in temperature regions, e.g. the UK, northern Europe, North America, North Asia and New Zealand.

As you head further south, into the Mediterranean, Africa, South Asia, South America and Australia, some birds breed all year round and will sing practically every morning.

When is Dawn Chorus Day?

International Dawn Chorus day was started some 30-years ago by naturalist and broadcaster Chris Baines.

Today, it’s promoted by the Wildlife Trust, and over 80 countries participate. It takes place on the first Sunday of May.

What triggers the dawn chorus?

The dawn chorus is primarily triggered by daylight, but the key reason why birds sing with greater conviction in the breeding season is because they’re searching for a mate. Birds sing to attract mates and signal their territories to other nearby birds.

In temperate countries, the dawn chorus is triggered by hormonal changes ahead of breeding season combined with physical changes in daylight and the ambient temperature.

The dawn chorus continues all year round in other parts of the world. For example, in the Ecuadorian rainforest, birds closer to the top of the tree canopy begin to sing first as the light gets to them sooner.

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