The Dawn Chorus: Why Do Birds Sing in the Morning?

Updated on July 3, 2020
Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

Scientist and author, Beth enjoys living life in the slow lane. She takes time to enjoy the little things in life.

The European robin is often heard singing in English gardens and woodlands.
The European robin is often heard singing in English gardens and woodlands. | Source

What Is the Dawn Chorus?

The dawn chorus is a natural event that happens every morning while most of us are still asleep. It’s an orchestra of birdsong; nature’s get-ready-for-the-day-ahead cacophony of sound.

Apart from a few nocturnal species, birds stay quiet and sleep through the night. As dawn breaks, before the first rays of sunlight pierce the darkness, a solitary bird will begin to sing. In the following few minutes, a couple more join in. Gradually, hundreds more join the chorus, and the result is magical. By the time the sun has fully risen above the horizon, the show is over. If you want to experience this event for yourself, be prepared to wake up very early. A complete dawn chorus rarely lasts longer than 30 minutes.

It’s too soon in the day for most humans to be out and about, so there’s very little traffic noise. The birdsong is clear and easy to hear. It’s a good time to learn to distinguish between the calling notes of different species.

Birdsong Dawn Chorus England (May 2013)

Prepare to Listen to the Dawn Orchestra

  • For the dawn chorus, your ears are your primary tool.
  • Check what time sunrise is expected and plan your outing in advance.
  • Plan to start listening to the chorus at least one hour before sunrise.
  • Wrap up warm as night temperatures are usually colder than daytime.
  • Take a torchlight so that you don’t trip over tree-roots on the way to your observation point.
  • Once in position, stay still and keep quiet.
  • Listen, don’t talk or whisper.

As dawn breaks, you may be able to catch a glimpse of the songbirds with binoculars. For beginners, I recommend the Nikon Monarch 8x42. They are ideal for bird-watchers as they're easy to focus, and lightweight to carry.

How Do You Know Which Bird Is Singing?

If you’re a novice birder, don’t get too worried at this stage about which bird sings what. Being able to recognize individual birdsongs comes with experience. If you want to understand different species, you’ll need to show patience and learn to actively observe.

Ideally, go out with an experienced birder to hear your first dawn chorus. If that’s not possible, before your trip into your backyard or further afield, take a look at a few books and videos about birds local to your area.

The videos below show some of the common species found in backyards in North America and the UK. I also recommend you download a bird song app to refer to when you’re out and about. But most of all, enjoy being outdoors and watching the sun rise as hundreds of birds sing their hearts out.

Identify Common American Backyard Birds

Common Birds, Central and Eastern USA

Pine Siskin
Purple Finch
House Finch
American Goldfinch
Northern Cardinal
Carolina Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Carolina Wren
Downy Woodpecker
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Brown-headed Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Chipping Sparrow
Pine Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Orange-crowned Warbler
Blue Jay
Red-winged Blackbird
Northern Mockingbird
Mourning Dove
Red-shouldered Hawk
Cooper’s Hawk
Baltimore Oriole
Rufous Hummingbird
These birds and their songs are featured in the video above by Lew Scharpf

15 British Birds and Their Songs

Common UK Garden Bird Species

Great Tit
Chaffinch
Blackbird
Robin
House Sparrow
Blue Tit
Nuthatch
Wren
Goldfinch
Magpie
Starling
Jay
Song Thrush
Mistle Thrush
Greenfinch
Nightingale
These British birds and their songs are featured in the video above.

Why Is There a Dawn Chorus?

There are many theories about why the dawn chorus occurs. Here are the three most common ones.

Defending Territory

Birds are territorial, and they protect their domain by calling out to their neighbors. By singing loudly they warn others that they are dominant, and have first choice in the food sources in this location. Prime real estate for our feathered friends means a ready supply of food, water, and nesting locations. This means they defend a territory that supports insects, seeds or small invertebrates, depending on their menu of choice.

Mating Calls

Birdsong is an indicator of the health and age of a bird. A female wants to select the best genes for her offspring, so choosing a mate on the basis of the fluency and musicality of their song is a good policy.

Quietest Time of Day

On a purely practical level, dawn is the quietest time of day. The birds are awake, but it’s too early to start hunting for food as light levels are still low. The best time to make any announcements is when your audience can hear you, and has not yet left for work; hence dawn is a good time to pick.

A red-winged blackbird can be seen in backyards in central and eastern USA.
A red-winged blackbird can be seen in backyards in central and eastern USA. | Source

International Dawn Chorus Day

The first Sunday in May each year has been designated International Dawn Chorus Day. The last one was on Sunday 3rd May 2020, and the next one will be on Sunday 2nd May 2021.

It’s “a celebration of nature's symphony. All across the world people rise early to revel in the sweet sound of birdsong, from rattling wrens in Rotherham to crooning cowbirds in the Caribbean.” Wildlifetrusts.org

The date has been chosen because there are still enough birds singing to make it worth your while to get up early to hear them, and the nights are not quite so cold as they were earlier in the year. Many wildlife groups organize events on or around that Sunday each year. It’s a nice way to learn about nature and meet like-minded people. Check out the websites below a few weeks before the date to find out what’s planned in your area.

This white-crowned sparrow sings his song from a branch at the very top of the tree.
This white-crowned sparrow sings his song from a branch at the very top of the tree. | Source

Why Do Birds Stop Singing?

The wake-up chorus lasts for about half an hour each day. The best time to hear it is in the spring. In the summer, there is a noticeable reduction in all birdsong activity, and this applies to the dawn chorus too. Some people worry that something has happened to the birds, but this is a normal change in behavior.

Does the Season Affect the Amount of Birdsong?

The peak breeding season is over by the end of May in the Northern hemisphere, and so the birds have less need to defend territory or show off to potential mates. Natural behavior patterns synchronize with seasonal weather to maximize food availability and ensure species survival.

When Does the Dawn Chorus Start and Stop?

The timing of first-light or break-of-dawn depends on the season and your location. Birds are more vocal during the mating season, so whichever months are Springtime for you are the best ones to listen out for the dawn chorus.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

Submit a Comment
  • Rada4Health profile image

    Rada Heger 

    8 days ago

    I enjoyed reading this article and your explanations are clear and insightful.

  • Eurofile profile image

    Liz Westwood 

    2 months ago from UK

    On a trip to Northern Cyprus a few months ago, the dawn chorus was very noticeable in a peaceful environment. It was my cue to get up and take photos of the sunrise. Many have commented in lockdown that they are noticing the dawn chorus more. This is an interesting and well-written article.

  • Pamela99 profile image

    Pamela Oglesby 

    2 months ago from Sunny Florida

    I like to wake up in the morning and hear thee birds as I usual wake early. This was a nice article, Beth.

  • Jodah profile image

    John Hansen 

    2 months ago from Queensland Australia

    What better way to start the day then rise early to hear the "dawn chorus." Interesting article and great photos. Thanks Beth.

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