Dawn Chorus In A Yorkshire Wood

It’s 4.42am on a Sunday morning in May, it’s 3 degrees Celsius and I’m strapping on my head torch before plunging into a West Yorkshire wood.

I’ve explored these footpaths hundreds of times over the past quarter of a century – but never before at this eye-wateringly early hour. So, what’s enticed me to abandon my bed at the sort of time when my sons can sometimes be found returning from a Saturday night out?

Well, today is International Dawn Chorus Day, and birdsong is rather fashionable at the moment. The RSPB has recorded a single, called Let Nature Sing, and it’s soaring up the charts like a skylark in a spring meadow. Time to head for a gig to check out whether this band are any good live.

By the time I arrive at the gate into my local wood, I’ve made a somewhat chastening discovery: I’ve missed the support band altogether, and the headline act are well into their set. This isn’t what I’d planned.

The idea was to get ensconced early enough to catch the first faint strains of song and then listen enraptured as it gradually built to a crescendo around sunrise at 5.24am. It turns out, though, that the Dawn Chorus actually begins way before dawn. This fact hits me in the face (and the ears) as soon as I creep out of the house: I’m startled to discover that there appears to be a wonderfully mellifluous blackbird on every roof of our suburban estate.

I’m not necessarily a fan of being woken up at 4am every morning, but it seems symptomatic of our insulated, double-glazed modern lives: Nature may be singing, but, a lot of the time, we just can’t hear it.

There are plenty of blackbirds in the woods, too, but here they’re competing against a bewildering blend of other voices. I can distinguish some – full-throated contributions from wren and chaffinch, great tits shouting “teacher, teacher,” woodpigeons calling “coo, coo” before crashing obtrusively through the trees, a chiffchaff obligingly calling out its own name. On the whole, though, I’m struck by how patchy my song recognition skills are compared to my (admittedly imperfect) ability to identify birds by sight.

A few minutes before sunrise – a moment of high drama in the wood. The call of a tawny owl drifts through the chilly air. Harmony turns to discord, song to alarm calls. A bulky, round-headed shape glides menacingly through the trees and disappears. The chorus begins again.

As day breaks, the wood takes on a new complexion. Sounds seem to diminish as sights become more vivid – the fresh green of the beech leaves, the carpet of bluebells. Three mallards – two drakes and a female – waddle incongruously across the woodland path. A grey squirrel flings itself around the treetops with reckless abandon.

As I leave the woods behind and head into the park, a rabbit scampers in front of me before crouching stock-still on the touchline of the football pitch. I hear the honking of a flock of geese flying overhead.

Back on our housing estate, I find things have changed in the two hours or so that I’ve been away. The marvellously tuneful blackbirds no longer rule the roost: their rooftop vantage points have been usurped by chattering magpies and chirping sparrows.

So, what have I gained from my early morning foray into the woods (apart from a realisation that an enthusiastic novice with a smart phone can’t even begin to compete with a professional wildlife sound recordist with the right equipment)?

Dawn chorus in a West Yorkshire wood (better through headphones)

The main thing that struck me was how utterly absorbing and all-enveloping an experience the Dawn Chorus is. Somewhere around 5am, I heard a roaring noise amid the birdsong and was puzzled and slightly disconcerted for a few seconds. Eventually, my rational, everyday brain kicked in and told me it was a plane flying overhead. On one of my usual, daytime walks – with my brain tuned into a background hum of traffic noise and countless other manmade sounds – my response would probably have been very different.

Let’s not get too dewy-eyed about the Dawn Chorus, though. The birds aren’t singing for us – and they’re certainly not singing with the aim of producing glorious harmony. Quite the opposite, in fact. Each individual is putting their heart and soul into proving that they’re better than all the others – they can defend a territory, attract a mate, find enough food, raise their chicks. This is actually the avian equivalent of competing war cries or football chants, rather than a choir all singing sweetly from the same hymn sheet.

I love the fact that the natural wonder of the Dawn Chorus is an accidental by-product of all this aggression and competition. I also love the fact that you can stand in a wood on the fringes of urban West Yorkshire and feel that – at 5am on a May morning, at any rate – Nature is completely in charge and humans are pretty insignificant.

The reality is, though, that our actions have a huge impact on Nature. Britain has lost 40 million birds over the past 50 years. We simply can’t go on like that. It’s time to Let Nature Sing.

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Wildlife enthusiast, walker and journalist. Lives in Yorkshire.

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