For the Birds Radio Program: Dawn Chorus

Original Air Date: June 6, 2008 Rerun Dates: April 22, 2011; April 29, 2010; April 14, 2009

The dawn chorus is an ephemeral event. The lazy woman’s way to enjoy it is to get up at 4, start a microphone, and go back to bed.

Duration: 4′10″


Every morning I wake up at least for a while around 4 or 4:30, to listen to the dawn chorus. I never used to do this except when I was staying at my mother-in-law’s in Port Wing, Wisconsin—she’s out in the woods with bazillions of birds all about. Peabody Street is in a regular neighborhood in Duluth, and although we get lots of birds singing at this time of the morning, it’s just not the same as it is in natural habitat, so I tend to sleep in.

The first time I ever experienced the dawn chorus was when I did my first Breeding Bird Survey, outside Duluth in 1989. I’d been birding at ridiculously early hours before, but never from within a fairly undisturbed forest where from every direction a huge variety of birds was in full song. In a good dawn chorus, you can pick out some individual voices, but because there are so many, our mere human ears just cannot resolve every one of them. We end up with a resounding blend of sounds at every frequency, with a few nearby or piercing voices carrying over everything, like a soloist trying to be heard over the crowd in Leonard Bernstein’s Mass.

If I get up early enough, I start out hearing mostly night sounds—frogs punctuated with one or two goose laughs. It’s a comfortable soundtrack for sleeping. But right when the sky grows barely perceptibly brighter—long before sunrise—suddenly a Song Sparrow or Robin commences singing. That’s enough to wake its neighbors, and suddenly—gradually enough not to be jarring, but suddenly enough to fill us with awe—the dawn chorus fills the air. The crescendo matches anything Beethoven imagined, and the variety of voices exceeds that of the most thrilling symphonic orchestras. Of course, unlike a symphony orchestra, each bird is singing its own song, not concerned with how it fits into the overall pattern, but the voices never seem to clash even when a mournful Mourning Doves gentle coos are heard in counterpoint with an exuberant Winter Wren’s tinkling song.

June is the perfect month to tune into the dawn chorus—by the Fourth of July, some of the singers will be dropping out, and by the end of July only a tiny fraction of birds will be singing at all. It’s one of the ephemeral joys, like warbler or shorebird migration, or an unexpected invasion of owls, that you have to take advantage of while it’s happening or you’ll miss it and wonder what the big fuss was all about. Pick a day when it’s not supposed to be too windy and not raining, and get outside to your favorite woodsy area. Bring mosquito repellant.

Sometimes the incessant buzzing of mosquitoes can actually overpower the dawn chorus. When I stand outside with my microphone, it picks up their nearby buzzes. But since my balcony looks out on such splendid habitat, I just wake up at 4 or so, start up my microphone and recorder out on the balcony, and then I go back to sleep. I posted my recording of the May 14th chorus on my blog, at, and will soon be posting more. So if you don’t care to battle mosquitoes, you just can’t pull yourself out of bed so early, or you’ve got better things to do than stand out at 4 am listening, you can download the dawn and listen whenever you like.