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The Dawn Chorus
An homage to the music we wake to.
An homage to the music we wake to.
Somewhere around the world right now, day is breaking. Should that light touch songbirds across cities and countrysides, nature’s greatest symphony begins: a dawn chorus. One bird sounds, then the next and another… all together! An incandescent crescendo! Fweet-fweet, ooh-ooh, aaw-aaw! As the sun keeps circling us, so too do these birds keep singing us awake.
PROSPER & PLEASURE
Male songbirds sing to guard territory and allure females for breeding. Springtime is the liveliest, the mating season for many. But some believe these birds perform more than what’s necessary for procreation – like humans, they appreciate music and beauty, and also sing for joy.
The dawn chorus peaks an hour before and after sunrise. Birds sing then, perhaps because foraging is harder during dimness so singing is better use of their time; singing passionately after surviving the night exhibits vitality; and lacking wind, songs sound clearer thus they are better identified.
How birds chime in and layer upon another can feel like free-form jazz. Every show is different by the day and season. The same bird species may even have regional accents, especially shaped by changing cities. Some city birds sing at a higher pitch to be heard over the hum of urban sprawls.
A WHOLE LANGUAGE
Birdsongs can have complex ‘sentence’ structure. Composer Emily Doolittle has also observed that these avian virtuosos use similar timbres, pitch relationships and patterns to human music – like how wrens native to the Amazon use intervals of octaves, perfect fifths and perfect fourths.
Grouped into oscines or suboscines, oscines learn songs from their parents or neighbours while suboscines are born knowing how to sing. Some sing two pitches at once, some mimic surroundings – camera shutters, car alarms, chainsaws! – and some include an elaborate dance. This is only the beginning of what the world’s 4,000 species of songbirds can do.
“In that dawn chorus, one hears the throb of life itself.” – Rachel Carson
LIVING WITH BIRDS
Birds have appeared in creation stories, mythologies and religions of many cultures in our earliest known civilisations, often as divine messengers and announcers of first light. Ancient Egyptians worshipped the ibis-headed god Thoth, the creator of languages and interpreter of the gods, and according to the Noongar Dreaming, magpies created the very sunrise.
We are drawn to imitating birdsong. Shigeru Miyagawa, a professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, suggests that between 50,000 and 80,000 years ago, we merged the ‘phonological syntax’ of birdsong with more lexical communications of other creatures and primates to create the sophisticated human language.
The world’s oldest musical instrument found is a 40,000-year-old flute made of a hollow bird’s bone. In ‘Pastoral Symphony’, Beethoven uses the flute to imitate a nightingale, an oboe for the quail and a clarinet for the cuckoo. When technology allowed us, we recorded and collected bird sounds, sampling them in contemporary music. Or if you’re like clarinettist David Rothenberg or cellist Beatrice Harrison – duet with them
But as literary scholar and philosopher Professor Bernhard Malkmus said of our modern times: “Birdsongs are part of our sensory embeddedness in the world that we rarely notice, a tightly woven web that cradles us. Yet, quickly we filter it out as white noise – and hastily we return into the echo-chambers of our own minds.” It would be unfortunate if the closest connection we have to birdsongs are our digital alarm clocks.
WAKING UP TO LIFE
Listening to the dawn chorus is not only saved for birdwatchers. We needn’t put pressure on ourselves to pick out individual sounds and identify birds; we can simply let nature’s free concert wash over us.
We don’t always see the birds. But there is a mystical element to closing our eyes and drenching our ears to birdsong – we feel it. It is a three-dimensional experience: some birds are high up in the branches, others down low; some close, others far; and certainly, the vibrations of nature as we sit amid it.
Studies have shown again and again that humans receive restorative benefits when connecting with nature. Whether it’s going outside on a forest walk or listening to a recorded nature soundscape, birdsongs can relax us physically and stimulate us cognitively.
Like sunrise, the dawn chorus can connect us to a sense of birth and rebirth; the cycles and seasons of nature and within ourselves; hope, surrender and forgiveness. Bursts of bright, fluty notes shimmer on our spirit in difficult times, as well as the utterly absurd – the laugh of a kookaburra, the drawn out whip crack of a whipbird – rousing a smile or giggle. Activating and uplifting, it’s one way to set the day’s tone.
Ethereal yet familiar, the dawn chorus is a constant amid chaos. What we are listening to is ancient, evolved over millions of years. So in a sense, we can relive the past. Our ancestors woke up to birdsong, and the quiet time of dawn is an invitation into times of aural peace before the Industrial Revolution. Humans have also learned that singing birds means safety – it’s when they stop singing that we should worry.
Describing a jungle paradise losing its peace to rising tourism, nature-sound recordist Gordon Hempton said, “There is a problem with being a sightseer only… The picture is not complete. It has no depth. No music. No beat.” In other words, the world is dull without birdsong. The dawn chorus is not only a daily reminder that we share this space with others – it helps us to feel more gratitude for living on this sublime planet we call home.