Dawn Chorus

The Natural Garden, Eastside Chronicle, Tallahassee Democrat 3/26/07

Early one March morning our daughter woke us saying that a bird outside her window had woken her calling, “Feodore, feodore, wick, wick, wick feodore”. Feodore, as she took to calling this bird, was a cardinal calling from the bushes outside her window announcing his breeding territory or trying to attract a mate. He and other cardinals begin an early morning chorus while it is still dark, with other species joining in towards the approaching light of dawn. In my yard the brown thrasher joins in shortly after the cardinal.

This early morning singing by birds is hardly unique to our area. It even has an official name – the dawn chorus, which occurs when songbirds sing at the start of a new day leading up to breeding. In checking the internet, I found that there is an International Dawn Chorus Day, especially active in England, this year to be held on May 6. This is a little late for us, spring having arrived in mid March.

It is amazing to imagine this chorus of song that, in North America, begins at the shores of the Atlantic Ocean and sweeps across the continent as a wave of bird songs as dawn progresses. One of the best ways to enjoy the dawn chorus is to go for a walk half an hour before dawn. If you go by yourself, you will be more observant of the sounds around you. I walk regularly at this time of day. Last week (week of March 19th) I jotted down the times of the chorus:

6:40 am – voice of the first cardinal in our yard
7:00 am – chorus beginning to build (still dark out)
7:15 am – pale light of dawn, dawn chorus peaking to a crescendo
8:00 am – down to individual voices here and there

Each day dawn gets earlier and earlier so you will need to adjust the time you walk to correspond with dawn.

On my walks I try to identify the voices of individual birds. I usually can distinguish Carolina chickadee, Carolina wren, tufted titmouse, perhaps a mockingbird, along with the cardinals and brown thrashers already mentioned as the leading singers. This morning I heard a rufous-sided towhee. Blue jays usually chime in late (I guess they like to sleep in). I am sure there are many other species singing – I just can’t distinguish their calls in the chorus. The cardinal can confuse you; besides his “feodore” call, he has several other interesting calls.

The quality of the dawn song is related to the quality of habitat that we create in our yards and parks in a neighborhood. Birds, like all wildlife, must have trees and shrubs that provide food and cover, places to make nests and raise their young, thickets for protection from predators and sources of water. What you plant in your yard will ultimately affect the dawn chorus of Tallahassee. I encourage all of you to experience this early spring dawn chorus by going out for an early morning walk by yourself or with a friend and listen as you walk!