The Dawn Chorus

My hands have been itching as if they were covered in nettle stings to get back to writing here; after reading a small library of books, amassing a minor financial crisis of library fines, and spending more time in the glow of a Microsoft word document than any human should ever feasibly have to spend, 15000 words were finally written, handed in, and rewarded by delicious freedom.

One up-side to a month of late nights and early mornings spent at my desk has been catching the birds greeting the early hours of the morning with crisp and delicate music. The dawn chorus occurs when songbirds sing at the start of a new day: it’s especially noticeable in spring, when the birds are either defending a breeding territory or trying to attract a mate. They sing at dawn because the air is calmer and sound transmission is good: a time of night that is usually characterised as bathing in rich silence becomes a cacophony of sound and melodic trills.

The little birds work as a kind of feathery orchestra – each species has its own place to come in, so as the hours progress the different voices and melodies layer on top of one another. The order begins with blackbirds and ends with goldfinches, going through robins, wrens, thrushes, warblers and pheasants. David Attenborough is currently doing a really great radio series about different bird-calls, which you can catch up with online if you can’t face the 5:58am broadcast:Wren

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01s6xyk/episodes/player

Most of what I know about the dawn chorus has come from my dad – he organises wildlife walks in a park back in Birmingham, and runs a dawn chorus walk in the early hours of a May morning. He really knows everything there is to know about nature, and I always make sure to ask him lots of questions.

The chorus starts as early as 4am (I can only assume the little birds have a bottomless supply of coffee to get them up so cheerfully) – but what, and why, are they singing? In general, only the male songbird sings, and his song has one of two poetical lyrics – “come here!” or “go away”. For all its prettiness, the notes pinging together like tiny coins, the dawn chorus is brutally competitive; full of plagiarism, trickery and feathered egos.

In order to attract a mate, a male bird has to obtain and defend a territory – a male claims his territory by singing in it and letting other males know to stay away. He throws down the gauntlet with a string of notes before leaving gaps to wait for replies to his challenge, so that he can locate other males and defend his territory to any strangers nearby. Some species, like chaffinches and great tits (snigger) use a number of voices and choruses to convince other males that there are lots of birds in the area. Some birds even mimic the calls of other species to increase the complexity of their songs (and desirability of them as mates) and to show the female that they have survived enough breeding seasons to have heard these other songs. Some migratory birds even mimic their international cousins; marsh warblers may mimic the sounds of 70 or so species, telling the females where they have spent the winter.Image

When male songbirds are advertising for a mate rather than marking territory, they sing songs that are longer and more complex (the territorial calls are more repetitive). It becomes an energy-intense activity that indicates his quality and fitness. Males will constantly develop and re-develop their songs in order to have the most complicated – and therefore most desirable – tune. Wrens, for example, have songs that contain over 700 different notes per minute and can be heard 500m away.

The new dawn chorus is probably my favourite part of spring, a sure sign that winter is wheezing its final breaths and nature is beginning to wake up with all the colours and sounds of a new season. Waking up at 4am may seem like a rather hellish suggestion, but it’s worth catching the chorus on a morning when you can’t sleep or are feeling particularly lively. I find it surprising that there hasn’t been a piece of music or a work of art based on the dawn chorus – it is masterful how the layers and layers of calls rise and fall past one another piling up like coloured grains of sand as the sky changes colour along with it. The little birds wake up the colour in the world, coax the sun out over the hills and expand the dark pocket of night into daytime sky.

“a light broke in upon my soul
It was the carol of a bird;
It ceased – and then it came again
The sweetest song ear ever heard”
Lord Byron

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Bats

Daubentons Bat

Daubentons Bat

Blossom, daffodils, blue, green, pink; my wool winter coat has been cast to back of my wardrobe, the windows beam with sunlight and birds chatter at dawn. It seems that spring is finally blooming here in London, drawing out shy flowers from the hard winter soil and gently waking up a whole range of animals from hibernation. Snakes, hedgehogs, bats, frogs, and bees all (very sensibly, if you ask me) escape the cold winter weather by hibernating in special habitats, before spending the balmy afternoons of springtime seeking food, a place to roost, and a mate. Bats will be struggling the most in this transition – according to the Bat Conservation trust, all of Britain’s species are endangered. It is a very sad thought that they are struggling to maintain their numbers: bats are intelligent and unusual animals, and an integral part of British wildlife. The image of a cloud of bats flitting in great arcs over roofs at the arrival of dusk is something that is quintessential of the British countryside; an important part of the landscape we must do our best to preserve.

Bats have gained an unfair reputation as blood-sucking, rabid little vermin, but really they are lovely, shy creatures who mind their own business and actually play an important part in keeping natural spaces healthy and thriving. None of the 17 British varieties of bats will sink its fangs into you and drink your blood – ours are all insectivores – and the three vampire bats that do exist (in Central and South America) are harmless, painlessly extracting inconsequential amounts of blood from pigs, chickens and other livestock. The association between bats and all things spooky and supernatural stems from the ancient Celtic summer festival of Samhain, when huge bonfires would attract insects and, naturally, their predators – the bats. The Celts believed that the spirits of the dead were present at these events, so they instinctively linked bats to messengers or signs of the spirit world.

Long-eared Bat

Long-eared Bat

Some cultures say that it’s lucky to have a bat in the house, but you’d be just as fortunate to have them in your garden. Just one of these little mammals can eat 2,000 – 6,000 insects in a single night, and even the teeny tiny pipistrelle bat can get through about 3,000. As for calling somebody “blind as a bat” – I suppose it could be taken as a compliment! Bats can actually see perfectly well in black and white, and have evolved echolocation to navigate in the dark and find prey. [‘Echolocation’ is a system used by animals whereby the creature emits a (usually high-pitched) sound that reflects off the object and returns to the animal’s ears. The animal then works out the distance of the object from the time it takes for the echo to return.]

You can make your garden bat-friendly, helping to boost their dwindling population and thrive post-hibernation, in a number of simple ways. You can encourage insects by extending the flowering season for as long as possible, and plant hedges, trees, and bushes to provide navigation aids and good roosts. Ponds and standing water without fish are a haven for insects like hoverflies, mosquitoes and midges, and you’ll soon see bats swooping over the water’s surface to catch their prey. For the ambitious, installing bat boxes on mature trees or the side of buildings is the ultimate bat-friendly act, and you can find out more on the Bat Conservation Trust website. Such small acts pile up to form a barricade around these elusive and misunderstood creatures and allow them to thrive, flinging their tiny bodies over the horizon at dusk and darting like tadpoles through the growing gloom.

'Ophelia' by Arthur Hughes, 1852

‘Ophelia’ by Arthur Hughes, 1852

A Daubenton’s bat is added to the corner of Hughes’s Pre-Raphaelite painting to portray a scene of rural English whimsy. Daubenton’s bats are sometimes known as water bats as they feed insects on the surface of the water. This one hunts in the bottom-left corner underneath the willow tree.

The London Naturalist Pt. One

Living in London, it can be rather difficult not to feel completely cut off from the natural world. Most of the greenery I see all week comes from walking down a tree-flanked dual carriageway towards the Strand, and the abundance of wildlife in the capital can really be limited to an overgrown population of pigeons and the odd mouse scrabbling about on the tube-tracks. Luckily, though, the city becomes a wealth of fascinating natural history once you know what to look for. So here’s the start of a sequence of blogs on exactly that – little things to keep an eye out for that small enough for you to catch on your way to work or outside your window, but big enough to give you an idea of what’s going on in another world besides our human one.

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Firstly – the budding shoots of wildflowers, a sure sign that winter is singing a bitter swan-song. Taking a walk recently I was cheered to discover a green stalks, white flowers and dots of orange and purple of a cluster of snowdrops and crocuses all braving the odds in an old abandoned flower-pot. Bluebells clung to long grass like glitter to wool along the woodland paths, and  the crocuses and snowdrops splattered the old greens and browns of the countryside with rolling trails of colour. As soon as these wild-growing flowers start appearing, you can be sure that warmer weather and longer days are on the way, and best of all, that we are one step closer to summer.

Another thing I’ve been noticing recently are big clumps of twigs and grass in the skeletal winter branches, about the size of basketballs. I saw a lot of these in Regent’s Park, which is incidentally one of my favourite places to catch up on nature’s projects and indulge in some wildlife-spotting in the middle of the bustling city – as well as its famous collection of rare and exotic waterfowl, here (even in my limited experience!) you can catch glimpses of herons, butterflies and the odd hedgehog. It’s a lot quieter than the other royal parks in the centre – presumably because everyone is looking at the exotic animals in London Zoo next door rather than bothering with the quotidian offerings of  the park. Anyway, a bit of research told me that these constructions are made by magpies, and are the beginning of these birds’ especially impressive nests. These nests are amazing, really: huge, spherical, layered, intricately woven, and incorporating thousands of miscellaneous pieces. They are big messes but they’re strong – some smaller mammals,such as foxes, will live in them for years when they have fallen to the ground.

Magpies are also a very underrated bird, I have always thought. They have an absolutely terrible reputation as pests – their populations are soaring at a time when songbirds and garden regulars are struggling to survive. Their hoarse, cackling call  doesn’t endear them either, imitating their literary and folkloric associations with evil and misfortune .

Magpies will always remind me of my dad – when I was little, he told me a silly story about it being very good luck to salute whenever you saw one and greet them with “Morning Major!” (I still have to clamp my tongue down now to avoid any public embarrassment).The ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent described them as “usually nonchalant and absurdly dignified”, which I think is quite a perfect description. They are opportunists and scavengers – inquisitive, curious, talkative, and skilled in disclosing things that have been concealed. If they were people, they’d undoubtedly be journalists or academics, picking and picking at whatever they can find, putting together scraps of information to build strong and artful projects.

Everyone knows what magpies look like: they are truly striking birds. Look out for its bright patches of white off-setting an elegant black iridescence of bronzes, greens, blues, reds, and purples, like colours rippling on the surface of a deep lake.

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And next time you see one, remember to count them – you can read your future with this rhyme! (Yet another of my silly dad’s stories!)

“One for sorrow

Two for joy

Three for a girl

Four for a boy

Five for silver

Six for gold

Seven for a secret never to be told.”