Scientist, Author, Educator, Tree Canopy Biologist

The Dawn Chorus–Nature’s Best Symphony

“As I come over the hill, I hear the wood thrush singing his evening lay. This is the only bird whose note affects me like music, affects the flow and tenor of my thoughts, my fancy and imagination. It lifts and exhilarates me…. It is a medicative draught to my soul. It is an elixir to my eyes and a fountain of youth to all my senses….”–Henry David Thoreau, Journal 22, June 1853

The time is 4:24 am. I sit upright in bed, awakened by an inspirational choir that has just burst into sound. Vacationing in the woods of northern Vermont, I’ve taken a summer sojourn back to the temperate forests of my childhood. I was entitled to sleep until noon as the obvious privilege of vacation. But late sleepers in the short New England summer miss one of the best musical events of the year. The red-breasted robin is the first songster on nature’s program. Greeting the pre-dawn with a melodious, cheerful message, it reminds all of the forest denizens that sunrise is imminent. The robin’s instinctive time-clock is accurate within seconds: Slivers of pink and red soon slice across the dark sky, interspersed with fingers of mist rising from last evening’s thundershower. Soon, that dawn harbinger is joined by a couple of other robins, a trio in full song. As if not to be outdone, the white-throated sparrows join in. Their lyrical solos echo, “Oh sweet Canada, Canada”. One of my favorite voices of nature, this poignant song instead says to me, “Oh, back home-again, home-again.” It is comforting that, almost two centuries after Thoreau described New England songbirds, their melodies have remained remarkably true over time.

Within ten minutes of the robin’s wake-up lyrics, the entire hillside chorus is in full sound–red-eyed vireo, house wren, bluebird, goldfinch, ovenbird, song sparrow, eastern wood peewee. (If you download the iBird app, you can listen to all of these amazing musicians.) By now, I’m awestruck and wide awake–no going back to bed now. Close at hand, a gang of crows engage in a raucous exchange, perhaps vying for a tidbit of breakfast along a nearby road. They disrupt the lyrical sensation of the dawn chorus, but add a bit of humor, like sandwiching a clown act into the program of my otherwise elegant symphony.

By 5 am, all the musicians are in full song. Suddenly the forest quiets for a brief lull. One new voice takes center stage. Its flutelike song and resplendent trills fill every hollow of the forest, sending chills down my spine. The other birds pause, as if paying tribute to this exquisite soloist. Thoreau was correct in saying that “this bird is an elixir to my eyes and a fountain of youth to all my senses.” Its speckled breast and reddish brown back provide fairly ordinary coloration for the star of the show, but perhaps serve as excellent camouflage for a nesting parent. Despite its nondescript costume, the wood thrush proclaims in song that this is the most special moment of its life. Anyone who is fortunate enough to listen to a wood thrush or to its cousins, the hermit or Swainson’s thrushes, cannot help but preserve that moment in her memory forever. Both were singing together in my Vermont dawn chorus.

In my home state of California, our dawn chorus is very different. Living near the San Francisco Bay, but also adjacent to a pond, I am awakened in summer by red-winged blackbirds interspersed with gulls and sometimes the odd western scrub-jay. On special evenings, a mockingbird confuses my entire neighborhood by singing all night long. The songs of a California dawn chorus would be vastly different if I lived under the canopy of redwoods, or if I lived on the Pacific Ocean where oceanic birds would be my alarm clock.

After hearing the wood thrush in the spruce boughs of Vermont, my annual pilgrimage back to childhood was complete. Like an opera buff, I am willing to travel great distances to hear my favorite singers. By mid-morning, the forest is relatively quiet. Having faithfully announced the new day, my feathered musical troupe moved from song to other activities–nest-building, tending to their young, foraging for food, and perhaps defending their babies from marauders. There is something inspirational, almost regal, about the dawn chorus. Birds celebrate each new day with great optimism. But after a stunning performance, they return to the business of survival.

Why do birds sing? Is it an expression of happiness invoked by these feathered balls of fluff flitting about the forest? Or is it survival of the fittest manifested as a competition for the best voice? Is it a physical mechanism to define territorial imperative? Ornithologists remind us that bird songs are part of complex behavioral patterns, and they have dedicated extensive research to their variation and function. Technical science aside, I feel very privileged to have had a front-row seat in what is one of Mother Nature’s best concerts of the season.

Article by Dr. Meg Lowman (aka CanopyMeg) in the Huff Post Science Blog. Lowman is a contributor for the Huffington Post — watch for Meg Lowman on Huff Post!