To be alone in the dawn chorus reminds us how precious life is
Many of the birds that enchant us in our woodlands and gardens are under threat. We must cherish them
The Observer, Saturday 4 May 2013 19.00 BST
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Star of the dawn chorus: the nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos). Photograph: blickwinkel/Alamy
International dawn chorus day is today. If that does not light you up, you should perhaps move to the latest coverage of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and other human folly. For here we are going to “clear from the head the masses of impressive rubbish”, as Auden put it, and think about rising at dawn like our ancestors and hearing birdsong spread to the far horizons.
It seems odd to designate an entire day for the dawn chorus because most people only become aware of it after the main event has happened, early on the first Sunday of May. But this morning’s concert (around 4.30am), which you perhaps missed, was one of many in a season that will last until Glyndebourne and possibly even Glastonbury. If you manage to attend just once during the piercing glories of this spring, when the blossom and trees have never seemed more miraculous, you might change yourself for ever or, at the very minimum, experience half an hour that you’ll never forget. To walk alone in the dawn chorus in some woodland or in the park, or simply standing in your back garden, reminds you how precious it is to be alive.
If this is a little too Buddhist or new age for a newspaper column, I make no apologies. Some of the best moments of the past month for me have been to wake at 5am (easily achieved by drinking a lot of water the night before) and fling open the windows to hear – in roughly this order – blackbirds, robins, wrens, chaffinches, pheasants, owls, blackcaps, dunnocks and goldfinches, against the soft pulse of scores of cooing pigeons and, maybe in the distance, a cuckoo.
I am evangelical about this moment, partly because, as my colleague Catherine Bennett reminded me, this is what life was like before the Industrial Revolution and the incessant noise of our world. Dawn is the one time that there is almost no road traffic. Noise from aeroplanes and trains is minimal and the fool across the way, with his bass guitar, is asleep or pharmaceutically coshed. If you rise at dawn at this time of year, you snatch something of our forebears’ experience.
International dawn chorus day is, I discover without much surprise, a British invention. Whatever our self-denigration and decline, you cannot take away from the British a genius for the appreciation of nature, particularly birds, as expressed by writers such as WH Hudson and, more recently, Michael McCarthy, author of the wonderful Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo. Birds fill the imagination of artists from Chaucer to Vaughan Williams, though I don’t sense any great interest in Shakespeare, apart from mention of swans, for obvious reason, and crows making wing to rooky woods, which he uses to create atmosphere.
International dawn chorus day began in 1984 courtesy of the Urban Wildlife Trust, at Moseley Bog in Birmingham, which has since become a nature reserve. To be honest, there’s not a lot that is international about it. I found three events in the US and a handful in Europe. But in Britain, there were 43 scheduled for about 4.30am today, and the start tomorrow of David Attenborough’s short Radio 4 Tweet of the Day birdsong programme.
Creeping around the countryside with a guide and fellow birdsong enthusiast, trying to distinguish between the blackcap and willow warbler is not my thing. I’m for poetry and solitude, not science at dawn. But the pleasure that the dawn chorus gives to thousands in Britain is undeniable. My dream is to wake to a nightingale, which I have only ever heard sing in Britain once, on the Port Street roundabout in Evesham, about 35 years ago.
There is something enthralling about the millions of birds, often weighing no more than a few ounces and measuring between four and six inches (10-15cm), which travel thousands of miles to reach Britain every spring. The next few days will see garden warblers, willow warblers, blackcaps, whitethroats and some nightingales crossing the Channel to Britain to fill the dawn chorus in woodlands and gardens.
Most have flown from southern Africa, compelled by mysterious certainty and navigational skills that we still don’t properly understand. Some of the cuckoos that began arriving last month were tracked by satellite from west Africa and, if you followed their halting progress on the British Trust for Ornithology site (bto.org), there were a few heart-stopping moments as each crossed the Sahara, without hope of water or caterpillars to sustain them.
In every natural history programme, at which the British also excel, I have come to dread the moment when the kindly presenter, often Attenborough, turns from some marvellous creature, whether it be a bonobo, whale, beetle or bird of paradise, to warn that the habitat of the particular animal is disappearing, breeding sites are fewer, food is in short supply and insecticides, farming practices and pollution now threaten its very existence. It must be the most melancholic aspect of Attenborough’s long and wonderful career to end so many programmes with this message.
The inescapable fact is that the dawn chorus is less than it was, and we have to wonder what will be left of it by the end of the century. So many of the really common birds of my country boyhood are in crisis. In England, cuckoos are down by 65%, sparrows 71%, lapwing 80%, yellowhammers and linnets both down 50% and those huge murmurations of starlings, which I used to watch heading north to the night warmth of Birmingham, are nearly a thing of the past. The starling is estimated to have declined by 79%.
I see more buzzards, kites and goldfinches than I once did, but the overall trend is depressing and will almost certainly continue with human population growth, more “efficient” farming practices and climate change, although warmer weather may bring some news species – and song – to Britain. Garden birdfeeders do a little good (lately, to goldfinches and sparrows) but migrants hunting for insects and grubs aren’t interested in birdseed.
So enjoy the dawn chorus while you can and perhaps ponder the message of the environmentalist Crispin Tickell as you do. “We have to look at life with respect and wonder. We need an ethical system in which the natural world has value not just for human welfare but for and in itself. The universe is something internal as well as external.”
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