Dawn chorus: why do birds sing in the morning?

Singing grasshopper warbler
Wake up early and listen to the birds (Photo: Amy Lewis/WTML)

If you go down to the woods today, make sure you set off very early: there’s an orchestra warming up and you don’t want to miss the start of the concert!

Sunday 7 May is International Dawn Chorus Day. So get up with the lark, pack a breakfast picnic and head outside to hear the spring symphony.

What is the dawn chorus?

The dawn chorus is one of the best-known, most recognisable and earliest signs of spring. But what’s it all about?

Singing robin
Robins are early singers (Photo: WTML)

It might seem like it, but it’s not our feathery friends telling us to get out of bed and make the most of the spring days!

Simply put, it’s the collective twitterings, tweetings and chirps of wild birds.

The sound is unmistakable. It starts with a few songs – listen for robins, blackbirds and thrushes – just before dawn. They’re soon joined by other voices until all the birds in the area are singing together.

Why do birds sing in the morning?

Well, it’s all to do with territory and raising chicks.

Male birds want to show off to any females in the area that they have a lovely spot that’s full of delicious, easy-to-find food. And they want to let their rivals know that such a good patch is taken!

Singing is really hard work, especially on an empty stomach and after a chilly night. So only the strongest, best-fed males will produce the loudest songs. And it’s this that shows females which male is best equipped to feed hungry chicks!

When can I hear it?

Singing great tit
Listen for the great tit's repetitive song (Photo: Amy Lewis/WTML)

Very early mornings between March and July. But it’s at its peak during May and June.

The first singers pipe up about an hour before sunrise, so you’ll need to be an early bird – especially if you want to catch the first few songs or identify individual birds.

But you don’t have to get up before it’s light. The chorus is at its best half an hour before to half an hour after sunrise, but the songs carry on well into the morning, meaning there’s plenty of time to listen – perfect if you want a few extra minutes in bed!

Why do birds sing so early?

Early mornings are too dark to search for food, and too dark to be spotted by predators. That makes it the perfect time to sing.

Plus, because there’s less background noise and the air is so still, sound carries around 20 times further than it would later in the day, which means everyone can hear it!

Which birds can I hear?

Birds start singing at different times, and just like an orchestra, there’s a set sequence.

Singing blackbird
Have you heard a blackbird? (Photo: Amy Lewis/WTML)

Robins, blackbirds and thrushes are first. They love gobbling up worms, so there could be some truth in the phrase ‘the early bird catches the worm’! Plus, their big eyes mean they can see more in the dark than other, smaller-eyed birds.

The pre-dawn singers are joined by woodpigeons, wrens and warblers, while great tits, blue tits, sparrows and finches only add their voices when it’s light enough for them to see.

Where can I hear the dawn chorus?

Almost anywhere, although the countryside, nature reserves or green spaces like parks are best.

But you don’t have to go too far from home. If there are trees on your street or you’ve got shrubs and bushes in your garden, head outside and listen. Or just throw open your windows before it gets light.

One thing’s for sure: it’s definitely worth waking up early for!

Do you have a favourite birdsong?

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