My new alarm clock is a 9-year-old cocker spaniel named Chance. We adopted him last fall. When he hops off the bed, it alerts me to the fact that he needs to go outside.
So I get dressed and we go outside.
It was on one such morning on a recent Sunday in March that I was surprised by a chorus of birdsong. There were 40 or 50 male red-winged blackbirds in the trees, doing their “cong-ka-ree” songs punctuated by loud screeches. There were robins practicing their spring songs, declaring their territories and trying their best to attract a mate for the summer. Many birdwatchers think of this as the “dawn chorus.”
This particular Sunday was also the first day of daylight saving time. We were outside an hour earlier in “sun time.” The birds, of course, don’t know anything about clock time. They start their day’s activities whenever the sun rises.
From 2005 through 2012, my son, Drew, and I collected information for the annual Breeding Bird Survey, sponsored by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The survey has a fairly strict protocol. For example, surveyors are assigned a 25-mile route. Every half mile along the route they stop, look and listen for exactly 3 minutes for birds.
Our survey route began west of the cities and started north of Cokato, then wended westward, ending near Litchfield. It’s quite rural until you get into Litchfield itself.
The USGS even sets the exact start time. For our route, it was 4:58 a.m. That’s about half an hour before sunrise in early June, another chance to hear the dawn chorus. As we sat at our first survey point, getting our gear together and waiting for our start time to arrive, we always heard birds tuning up to meet the day. There’s something magical about hearing a bird sing in pitch darkness.
There would be song sparrows trilling their song, which starts with two or three notes on the same pitch and then goes off into a lovely musical cadenza. There were ring-necked pheasants squawking off in the distance and red-winged blackbirds belting out their cong-ka-rees. And robins, always robins, some of the earliest (and latest) summer singers.
More members joined the chorus as the day brightened.
A great reference work for all things related to bird vocalizations is The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong by Donald Kroodsma (Houghton Mifflin, 2005). Regarding the dawn chorus, Kroodsma says that at dawn, birds “sing with the greatest speed and variety.” He also states that “a bird does not sing in isolation, but in a community of singers, especially at dawn.” He likens it to the call and response patterns that we humans use.
Kroodsma’s book is a good one for studying birdsong. It includes a CD of birdsongs to which he refers in the text.
I had another experience with the dawn chorus that didn’t begin at dawn. My wife and I used to play a CD as we drifted off to sleep. I think the title had something to do with sunrise meditations. One track was recorded in a marsh, another in a meadow, one at the sea shore and the like. Unfortunately, instead of drifting off, I spent the time trying to identify each of the songs I heard. “Oh, that’s a red-wing. There’s a marsh wren, very nice. Pheasant in the background. …”
I couldn’t shut off the ID mechanism in my mind. Since it wasn’t helping induce sleep, we finally stopped using it.
My son and I took part in another early morning survey every April for nine years. It’s the Crane Count, sponsored by the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wis. The count is always held on the same Saturday across the Upper Midwest, from 5:30 to 7:30 a.m. When counting is done at the same time, there’s less chance of more than one observer reporting the same sandhill cranes.
Our assigned territory was always in northern Ramsey County, near a compost site. We’d get to our roadside spot, set up and listen. There were usually a couple of American woodcocks doing their “peent” call. When they do that, you know they’re on the ground. It’s when they stop the peent that they go airborne and you try to find them spiraling upward against a gray pre-sunrise sky. They were one part of a rich dawn chorus.
We always had turkeys arguing with each other before sunrise. They truly do gobble, gobble!
And then the usual suspects, song sparrows, robins, red-winged blackbirds and an occasional pheasant. And most importan, we heard sandhill cranes every year.
Listening to the dawn chorus really is a great way to start the day, especially if it’s not raining. But that’s another story.
Clay Christensen lives and writes in Lauderdale. His book, The Birdman of Lauderdale, is available at local book stores, wild bird stores and online at BirdmanBook.com.