It is easy to get caught up in the idea that birds are all coming together to create this perfect sound in the morning. We have created a sense of romance and beauty in the melodies and symphony of the dawn chorus. The reality is that there are different species, all with the same aims, attempting to be the loudest and best of their species. So what is it all about? Why are they singing, and why so early in the morning?
Although some female birds sing, primarily male birds sing in the morning. By singing before the light of day, a male can attract females and establish their daily territory. By singing early, they make it easier for females to hear them and harder to spot by predators.
Birds singing is one of life’s pleasures, and in this article, we explain why they sing and why they do this so early in the morning.
Attracting Females and Establishing Territories
Male birds will sing in the mornings to make sure that other males know who the dominant bird is in the area. If you hear the same type of call outside your window each morning, it is likely to be the same individual bird going through this process. They will use their song to make sure that other males get the message and don’t think about coming into your garden to try to steal their food supplies or their female. This repeated process is a great deterrent, especially during the breeding season when males need to secure the area for their mate and their young.
But, these males also need to attract those females to begin with. A good, loud song every morning is an excellent way of advertising your presence and availability to any females in the area. Females looking for a suitable male to breed can seek out the bird, and you may get a pair nesting in your garden.
Females can be picky. If they hear a better song elsewhere, they will go where they believe they can find the best genes for their young. Because of this, male birds need to ensure they have the skills and endurance to sing for as long as possible and with all the correct phrases. Endurance means these birds are strong enough to continue the song even before they have been out foraging for food. This suggests that they must have had plenty of food the day before and can maintain a territory where they can also provide for a mate and a brood of chicks.
Louder and Further
The louder the bird and further their song carries, the better their chances of finding a mate. It isn’t enough for a male songbird to sing a basic song in a bush and expect to do well. The most successful males can project their songs loud and clear and make their point known. This means finding the ideal perch where their voice can carry across a wider range. Some will head up high onto roofs and belt out their songs. They are surprisingly loud for such small creatures. It is also noted that urban songbirds are louder than their countryside cousins to project over the cities’ noise. They may also change their songs to suit their surroundings.
Females may also prefer a male with a complex song. The more phrases a male can add to their song, the more they can express. Songbirds have much wider skills in vocalization and producing sounds than other types of birds. Others may have calls or simple sounds to alert others of their presence, call to a mate, or warn off a predator. But, these birds don’t have the same physiology to create a wider range of sounds.
Why the Morning and why so Early?
The morning is the best time of day to engage in this sort of activity. First, birds can sing their very best songs to the world while everyone else is asleep. The sooner a bird wakes up and starts the song, the less competition they have to be heard. Other males will wake up to hear that a stronger, louder rival is already singing away and showing off their territory and dominance. They will have to make a bigger effort to compete. Blackbirds and other thrush species tend to be up the earliest, so they are usually the first voices you hear. As the morning continues, more birds of different species will start to do the same thing.
Singing first thing in the morning also gets this important activity out of the way before light levels are much better, and they can carry on with their day. The dawn chorus will often start while it is still pretty dark. They can put all of their efforts into singing and re-establishing those territories for the day before everyone sets off to feed or continue the process of attracting a mate. During the breeding season, it makes more sense for males to shout their status loud and clear in the darkness and then use their energy to find food, tend to their mate, and help with nest building where they can do so.
There is also the fact that singing under the cover of darkness makes them harder to spot. Females and rival males don’t need to see the bird to understand their status and intentions. The qualities of the voice and song say enough. If a male were to sit on a prominent perch and sing loudly in broad daylight, it would attract hawk’s and other predators’ attention. A female doesn’t want the genes of a male that isn’t that smart.
The dawn chorus may be early, but it is still a beautiful way to wake up.
This need to be the first to sing under cover of darkness does mean that the dawn chorus can start very early in the morning in some places. Those that love waking up to the sound of nature can appreciate the different melodies and know that this is the start of something much bigger that will influence the next generation of birds visiting their gardens. It is a national natural treasure and something to savor every day.
Bryan Harding is a member of the American Society of Mammalogists and a member of the American Birding Association. Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Bryan serves as owner, writer, and publisher of North American Nature.