Up with the Lark?

by Sarah Dobson Wildlife Author - Alison Giacomelli Birds Birds

It’s that time of year when spring is springing and the birds are singing. As winter turns into spring, the lengthening daylight switches male songbirds into breeding mode. Whilst our spring so far may have felt quite cold, songbirds are timing their breeding season to the warmest part of the year when there is plenty of food and lots of daylight to find it. The two main reasons male birds sing in spring is to do with holding territories: either to advertise to females that they have one, or to warn other males away. Males can also sing as part of their courtship. The ‘dawn chorus’ may also be a way for communities of birds to keep track of each other – to be able to tell who has survived the night, whether there is a territory free, or whether new individuals have arrived. Wren singing - RSPB Images Whilst birds do sing throughout the day in the spring, the sound is at its peak at dawn. This is because it is not easy to look for food in the dim light, so the time can be used more productively for trying to attract a mate. Singing is also a dangerous activity as it advertises the male’s position not only to females, but also to predators as well, so the low light levels at dawn help to hide the bird’s location.  A further reason to sing early in the day is that sound travels further in the cool damp air, perhaps 20 times further than at midday! If you go out into your garden or park one hour before sunrise – about 04.30 am in May (!) –  you may notice a pattern to when the birds start to sing. The first to start are song thrushes, blackbirds and robins. These birds all eat worms, which are easier to catch early in the day when the ground is damp – the early bird really does catch the worm! Wrens and warblers meanwhile are more relaxed and start singing later. These birds are smaller, maybe more sensitive to cold mornings, and eat insects that appear later in the morning. Song thrush singing - RSPB Images Up on the South Downs, the dawn chorus comprises the familiar birds of parks and gardens, but also farmland birds such as skylarks, corn buntings and linnets. Farmland birds have suffered significant declines in numbers due to intensification of agriculture, and are faring particularly badly in our densely populated region of south-east England. However, up on the Downs of our Biosphere, two farmland birds can be seen and heard in numbers that you just don’t get anywhere else in Sussex: the skylark (image left), with its continuous burbling song; and the corn bunting (image right), with a less melodic but still distinctive song - like a bunch of keys being jangled! skylark Corn Bunting Recovery Project. Cornwall, England. June 2008.   The RSPB is working with other organisations and landowners through the South Downs Farmland Bird Initiative to make sure that farmland birds have the three things they need: safe nesting habitat, summer insect food and winter seed food. Our monitoring shows that this approach is starting to bear fruit, or indeed birds, with more birds recorded in 2015 than in the previous year. So whether, you listen out in your garden, park, or up on the downs, an early rise is a must to appreciate the truly spectacular sensation of the dawn chorus – set your alarm and get outside! Alison Giacomellirspb-logo Conservation Officer RSPB All images (c) RSPB
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