Every morning, from March to July, we have the opportunity to enjoy a wonderful natural concert: the dawn chorus.
As breeding season gets underway during spring, morning birdsong becomes louder and louder – typically peaking in May and June.
Birds sing loudly at dawn in an effort to attract a mate and defend their territories. With less background noise early in the morning, birdsong can carry much further. Singing is hard work, so it's usually the fittest males who sing the loudest – and stand the greatest chance of attracting a female.
There's also an evening performance – the dusk chorus – but this tends to be quieter. When birds sing in the evening, it's easier to hear some species, like blue tits and tree sparrows, whose songs may get lost in the morning cacophony.
Do you know your chiffchaff from your chaffinch?
There are more than 50 resident species of songbird in the UK – as well as more than 30 migratory species, visiting in either winter or summer – and each species has its own unique range of songs and calls.
This can make it difficult to identify the individual birds as they sing. We’ve put together a quick guide to some of the more commonly heard birds (with sound!), from chiffchaffs to chaffinches, on the Little Green Space website at www.littlegreenspace.org.uk.
There are also excellent guides to birdsong on the RSPB and Songbird Survival websites. Or you can download an app – Merlin is good – to help you identify the different sounds.
Another way to learn more about birdsong is to join a dawn chorus walk – there are lots of local options available, run by different organisations including the National Trust. You’ll have to set your alarm though, as many events start as early as 5am!
But hearing the dawn chorus is a beautiful experience that's worth getting up early for. And listening to birdsong can be beneficial at any time of day – it can help you to de-stress, and is a good way to connect with nature.
What to listen out for
The dawn chorus may sound like a cacophony, but it’s actually an organised affair, with each species taking turns to sing their hearts out and get their voices heard.
The first birds to sing each morning are usually robins.
Instantly recognisable, the robin is the UK's favourite bird – and its melodious song is also quite easy to recognise, starting around an hour before sunrise. Robins are fiercely territorial so they will continue to sing all day long – and sometimes even at night.
Blackbirds and song thrushes are also early risers – getting up at dawn for their favourite food, worms. These are easier to find when the ground is soft and wet in the early morning. Both birds have beautiful songs, featuring a series of rich, flutey notes.
A little later you'll hear chaffinches and wood pigeons, along with the unmistakable call of the chiff chaff. The call sounds like the bird’s name, a steady, repetitive “chiff chaff chiff chaff” – but you’ll only hear it between late March and August, as these birds are summer visitors to the UK.
The last birds to join in the symphony are wrens, tits and warblers. These smaller species are later risers, as they’re more sensitive to the coldness of dawn. And as their breakfast consists largely of insects, which won’t be around until the sun is a little higher in the sky, they delay getting going until they are sure there’ll be some food available.
Make your garden noisier
Many of the birds that visit our parks and gardens are songbirds. They can also be seen and heard in woodlands, meadows and moorland.
Sadly, though songbirds are in trouble. At least 10 different songbird species were on the RSPB’s 2020 State of UK’s Birds Red List, with turtle doves, nightingales and tree sparrows suffering large population declines in recent years.
To help them – and get more birdsong in your life by attracting more birds to your garden – offer food and fresh water. Providing a variety of seeds, nuts, and suet-based treats will attract a variety of songbird species. This is particularly important from April to June, as it’s breeding season and birds will need the extra energy – for themselves, and to feed a hungry brood.
Another fantastic way to help boost bird populations is to grow plants, trees and shrubs that provide natural sources of food and shelter.
Nectar-rich plants, such as lavender, dandelions, sunflowers and sedums, will attract insects – which in turn will attract insect-feeding birds such as blue tits and wrens.
Dandelions and sunflowers also produce seeds – as do teasels and thistles. These are enjoyed by many seed-eating birds, particularly goldfinches.
Many shrubs and trees provide berries which are eaten by birds such as thrushes, blackbirds and sparrows. Holly, ivy, honeysuckle and hawthorn are all good choices, and have the added bonus of insect-attracting blossoms in spring. They also offer dense foliage for birds to shelter and nest in. Rowan trees typically produce a profusion of berries in autumn that will attract redwings and fieldfares.
Apple trees are excellent too, with nectar-rich, bumblebee-friendly blossoms in spring, and fruits in autumn. Leaving a few fruits on the tree, and leaving windfalls in situ, will help birds find food well into autumn. Small fruit tree varieties are available for people with less space – there are even some that are suitable for growing in containers.
Leaving a small area to go wild – and maybe piling up some branches to create a log pile – will also help insects to thrive, benefiting all sorts of creatures including bats, toads, birds and mammals.
And finally remember to provide water. Birds need fresh water for drinking and bathing – and a water feature supports all sorts of invertebrate life that is a vital part of the food chain.
If you have space, a wildlife pond is one of the best things you can include in a garden to boost biodiversity. But any source of water – even a small washing-up bowl, filled with water from a water butt and maybe planted up with an aquatic plant – will help to enhance the wildlife value of your garden.