Conservation Corner: The Avian Alarm Clock

American Robin

By Dan Zarlenga, Missouri Department of Conservation

Photo Caption: The American robin is one of the most prominent singers in the springtime dawn chorus. Listen for their cheery songs among the early morning avian performers. Photo by Noppadol Paothong, Missouri Department of Conservation.

You can put away your alarm clocks for the next couple of months. Nature has you covered, especially if you want to get up really early. Just leave your window open and the dawn chorus will sing you awake.

The dawn chorus is a phenomenon that occurs each spring and reaches its peak in May and June. It’s when the changes of light and weather cue birds of many varieties to sing their loudest and most enthusiastically, and they do it all together as the sun rises. The result is a swell of avian songs that can be enough to wake you up in the morning.

It begins as early as an hour before the sun rises, just as the eastern horizon shows the first signs of light. It starts quietly at first, but the initial calls quickly ascend to a loud, impressive chorus. The birds sing from trees or shrubs in backyards, parks, neighborhoods and the woods everywhere.

The larger birds such as thrushes and doves are among the earliest singers, with the smaller species like warblers chiming in a bit later. In our area, the American robin is one of the most audible and prominent participants in the dawn chorus. Look for their string of clear whistles that are often described as sounding like “cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up”.

Keep listening though, because the composition of singers changes several times throughout the morning, so the whole show can be very dynamic. It’s not unlike the different movements in a musical symphony or concerto. By an hour or so after sunrise, the chorus subsides as the birds start going about other business.

But why do the birds do this? Spring is a time of mating and rearing young, and that inspires the singing. Males are advertising their fitness by showing off their vocal prowess. They’re hoping their powerful songs will convince female birds that they will make strong and healthy fathers. Birds also want to tell other birds that “This is my turf!” The poet Robert Frost wrote “Good fences make good neighbors”; for birds, it’s good singing that makes good neighbors.

Daybreak conditions help birds get the most out of their singing. There tends to be less ambient noise earlier in the morning, so their songs can go farther. Other competing sounds such as insect buzzes are less common which makes the birds easier to hear. Lower morning air temperatures and less active air currents allow the still air to carry dawn chorus songs even further, which helps a bird claim its territory from a greater distance. The early morning light levels also tend to be too low for other activities like foraging, and the weaker air currents not as conducive for migrating.

So why not sing?

This spring, turn off those alarm clocks and open up the windows. The birds would love for you to enjoy their performance!