The dawn chorus is at its peak in May, and early risers will be treated to a symphony of beautiful voices as birds in gardens, parks and woodlands sing their hearts out.
This wonderful natural phenomenon – which starts in March and lasts until July – marks the start of the breeding season for UK songbirds, with longer daylight hours signaling to male birds that it’s time to start looking for a mate.
Male birds must be fit and well-fed to sing loudly, as the effort involved uses up energy. So females will be attracted to the loudest singers – these are the strongest males who will make good mates, able to defend territory and help bring up a family.
The birdsong you hear at sunrise is the loudest you’ll hear all day. Birds start early because dawn, with lower light levels, is not the best time of day to go searching for food. So instead they put their efforts into attracting a mate and defending their territory.
For us humans enjoying the show, there’s less background noise from traffic or people in the early morning. This means a bird’s song can travel much further – giving it a greater chance of being heard.
From robins to wrens
Once the birds get started, the dawn chorus may sound like a chaotic jumble of sound – but there’s actually an organised order of performances, with each species taking their turn as the sun rises. This means they all have a chance to take centre stage and get their voice heard.
The first birds you’re likely to hear are robins and dunnocks – they start to sing about an hour before sunrise. The robin is even known to sing at night, especially in town centres where there are lots of streetlights.
Blackbirds and song thrushes are next to strike up a song, with sweet, warbling voices that are a delight to listen to. These birds need to get an early start, as they feed on worms – the ground is wetter in the morning so worms are more active at this time. As soon as it’s light enough, they’ll stop singing to go and grab some breakfast – so the early bird really does catch the worm!
A little later you'll hear chaffinches, wood pigeons, and collared doves, 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 they’re 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 cold temperatures at dawn. And as their breakfast consists largely of insects, which won’t be around until the sun is higher in the sky, they delay getting going until they’re sure there’ll be some food available.
Learning to recognise some of these calls can be very rewarding – after focusing on individual calls a few times it becomes easier to identify which species is making which sound. To help, you can hear birdsong recordings on the RSPB website at www.rspb.org.uk.
Grow your own
Many people only feed garden birds in winter – but extra food is equally important in spring. Nights can stay cold – even frosty – until the end of May, and winter seeds and berries will now be gone. Birds need energy for breeding, and when the brood comes along there will be hungry mouths to feed.
It’s therefore helpful to keep offering food. Sunflower seeds and suet blocks provide an energy boost – but avoid peanuts, as they could harm baby birds.
An even better idea, though, is to grow plants that provide a natural food source for birds. Wild animals, including birds, shouldn’t be reliant on humans – so creating nature-friendly habitats packed with food and shelter is really important.
But which plants should you grow to help garden birds? Plants that produce berries and seeds are obvious choices, but nectar-rich flowers are also vital – these will attract insects, a major source of nutrition for many bird species.
Teasels, sunflowers, globe thistles and dandelions all produce seeds that are loved by goldfinches, house sparrows and bullfinches. Dandelions are particularly useful as, unlike many other seed-bearing plants, they begin to seed as early as April. As an added bonus the sunny, nectar-rich blooms attract all kinds of insects.
There are lots of plants that produce berries – these are an important food source for birds in autumn and winter, when insect numbers are dwindling and frozen soil makes it hard to access worms and other invertebrates. Berry-loving birds include thrushes, blackbirds and starlings.
Rowan produces lots of berries, and is a good choice of tree for Peak District gardens, because it can cope with harsh winter weather – its other name is mountain ash.
Holly is another useful tree for birds, as the red berries stay in place right through winter. The prickly, impenetrable branches also provide excellent protection from predators.
Other plants that produce berries for birds include cotoneaster, pyracantha and hawthorn. These thorny shrubs also provide protective shelter – and hawthorn leaves are the foodplant for moth caterpillars, which birds will eat in spring.
Any nectar-rich flowers are useful in a wildlife garden, as they will attract insects. Insects are eaten by a wide variety of birds, from swifts and swallows to blue tits and wrens. Plants that attract lots of insects include lavender, catmint, verbena bonariensis, ox-eye daisies, scabious and sedums. Or try growing annuals, such as calendula, cosmos and cornflowers – they’re cheap and easy to grow, and will provide a splash of colour throughout summer.
Honeysuckle is useful in small gardens, as it can be trained up a fence or trellis, taking up very little space. Its fragrant, nectar-laden blooms attract insects, including moths. Ivy is another good climbing plant – as well as producing berries and nectar-rich flowers, it provides a home for nesting and roosting birds.
Also consider allowing a patch of lawn to grow long. Long grass, filled with wildflowers like daisies, clover and dandelions, is an excellent habitat for all kinds of invertebrates – and in turn should attract different bird species.