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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The dawn chorus I never heard before

A remarkable thing happened this morning. Well, it was amazing to me, but maybe quite familiar to you. Tell me if it is and then I’ll try to work out why I have never heard it before.

    We’ve all heard of the expression, ‘dawn chorus’ to describe the early morning calls of the birds declaring their territory to the world in song.

    When I woke, I could hear the random multiplicity of bird calls – I can’t tell you them all, but of course there were the usual suspects such as magpies, butcherbirds, currawongs, wrens, a wagtail or two, and kookaburras, randomly puncturing the silence with their lively calls. Others I can’t name were there as well. It's a comforting sound, mainly because it reminds me I'm alive. Believe me, there's nothing quite so comforting as that.

    I was enjoying this rather gentle cacophony when everything fell silent, and to my surprise, with the precision and timing of a church choir, the air was filled with a genuine dawn chorus. There was a unique order to the birdcalls, even to one little bird I can’t name, as I’ve never heard it before amongst the others. It ended the round with a flat single sound, just one low note on its own.

    Surely that was just a chance occurrence, I thought, but no. There would be a short silence and a magpie or butcherbird would lead the chorus for another round. The kookaburras kept quiet, which was good because they would have been much too raucous, like a rude drum solo right in the middle of a Bach fugue.

    Each bird came in at the same place every time. Once again it ended with that plain, pure note by some unknown little participant in the chorus.

    This must have gone on for five minutes or so, the same piece repeated flawlessly, and then silence reigned again, almost eerily. The normal random cries of the birds then began once more.

    The mysterious conductor had disappeared. The world of sound in the trees nearby was as it always was. The kookaburras thought the whole thing a great joke and let it be known to the world.

    I looked out. There was a very heavy fog. I don’t know if this made any difference to the way the birds behaved, but I have woken to what I imagined was the ‘dawn chorus’ just about every day of my life.

    It wasn’t. The real dawn chorus was something else entirely. I wonder if I’ll ever hear it again?

    Life, you see, is always full of surprises, and sometimes they come from the most unexpected quarter. You already knew about this treetop chorus? Maybe I don’t want to know that you did!


  1. What a wonderful experience - that would have been glorious. I do believe there is so much, much more to the community among animals than we usually see or think of. Especially I think birds are very much under-rated for their intelligence and the communities they form. But I love birds!
    I have very fond memories of childhood summers staying with my grandparents on the central coast when it was still a bit bushy and waking up to beautiful birdcalls every morning. Alas, cannot say I experienced what you did though.

  2. Thanks, Jackie - yes, I was lucky in that respect. It makes me wonder, if I were listening from say half a km away, whether some of 'my' birds would be part of a different chorus... well, logic dictates that they must have been!

    And yes, it has been shown many times that birds like parrots and cockatoos can be highly intelligent. They do, after all, appear to be the surviving dinosaurs, and the last of them must have been pretty smart.

  3. Well I had a nice long post and the blog log in bug just bit me, so you will have to suffice with this much shorter version as my feet are getting cold! (I must remember to type comments elsewhere - copy, paste. How many time will I get caught! Argh. You are NOT alone in this regard I assure you! ;-)

    Have a listen to this Science Show episode and let me know if it might go some way to explaining what you experienced. :-)
    Specifically the bit about birds, frogs and insects self-organising a schedule of calls so they each get a slice of the very limited air time, especially at dawn and dusk.

  4. Heya Scott - yep - log in first, copy your text into memory at least before hitting that 'post' button, and you give yourself a chance! But I know - you think you're going to write just a sentence or two and it ends up becoming War and Peace!

    I think you might be on to something with this. Birds don't sing just for fun, even if it sounds so. There must almost always be an ulterior motive, just as we don't usually make vocal sounds for no reason at all. This could easily slip into a pattern under the right circumstances, with participants listening for their slot of time. Thanks for this insight.


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