Laying awake at 3.30, I heard a distant cockerel crowing somewhere in the village and, unexpectedly, a few croaky stanzas from a nearby Woodpigeon giving me the impression that it was just back from a night out on the tiles. Then silence again.
At 4.00 – I’m not
sure if I was still awake or they woke me up – one Robin started to sing
nearby and was immediately joined by another. Perhaps they woke the
Blackbirds, since several around the campsite scolded though none sang
right away (maybe even Blackbirds are grumpy when first roused). But as I
listened to the Robins I became aware of Blackbird song, not on the
campsite, but a distant cacophony gradually becoming, it seemed to me,
louder and louder and closer and closer.
For a while I was
enthralled by the illusion that I could hear the dawn chorus
approaching from the east. Later I realised that Shropshire arcs towards
the sun at 650 mph and I couldn’t really have been listening to the
advancing wave of birdsong raised by the dawn racing westwards so close
to the speed of sound. More likely those distant Blackbirds were
enjoying woods and hedgerows with an aspect better favoured by the
rising sun than those around my campsite and were consequently roused to
song a little sooner than ‘my’ birds.
In much less than a
minute the Blackbirds around me were also in full voice. The volume and
number of singing birds was astonishing, even drowning out the
occasional snores of the man in the next tent! Staring at my canvas
ceiling, I strained to pick out other birds – perhaps a Mistle or Song
Thrush – above the chorus of Blackbirds. But aside from the valiant
Robins and a Mallard flying so close that its wing-beats vibrated
against my flysheet, it was all Blackbirds and more Blackbirds for the
next quarter of an hour.
At 4.20 a stuttering Song Thrush
tried to get in on the act but soon gave up. I imagine that in the
course avian history a Thrush Summit was convened at which the lofty
Blackbirds – confident of their vocal superiority even amidst this most
musical of bird families – assured the other thrushes that they might as
well leave the dawn chorus duties to them. Better appear later in the
day (and lower down the bill) as talented soloists, than expose their
limitations beside their more polished cousins. On the evidence of this
morning, the Song and Mistle Thrushes grudgingly agreed.
the peak of the Blackbird’s ecstasy gradually passed, other birds
started to express theirs: Wrens, Chiffchaffs, Wood Pigeons, Pheasants
and Carrion Crows joined the remaining Blackbirds and Robins. The music
of the Pheasants and Crows surprised me; normally I would hardly
register their harsh calls, but here in this avian orchestra they lent a
sort of bucolic texture and gravity to the whole ensemble. Juxtaposed
against the melodic songbirds, they came into their own and were...
A buzzing ‘honk honk’, confusing me for
a moment, was just my mobile phone complaining of a low battery! It was
not so easy to ignore the A5 where it crosses the floodplain of the
Severn a quarter of a mile distant. In daytime the din made by traffic
speeding over it – amplified by the bridge itself – is a constant source
of pollution in the otherwise gentle soundscape of rural Shropshire.
But in the quiet hours of the night or early morning even a single car
crossing that bridge, to an ear which has turned off its 21st century
hubbub filter, seems to generate the same amount of noise as a
low-flying jet and was as intrusive at this dawn chorus as a cougher is
at a chamber recital.
At 4.40 Great Tits and Chaffinches
started to make a belated, though no less enthusiastic, contribution to
the chorus. By 4.50 they were joined by Jackdaws, Collared Doves and
Blue Tits as the remaining Blackbirds and Robins wound down in order to
get on with the business of the day. The cockerel, not heard for an hour
and a half, imperiously bookended the whole performance at 5.00 like a
As I drifted in the direction of
sleep I wondered at the imperative that drives birds to such rapture as
the day breaks. Science says that they are proclaiming territories at a
time of day not well-suited to finding food and that the density of the
cold early morning air carries their voices further and louder. But I
wonder if there isn’t a little poetic leeway to invoke joy as part of
the explanation? Joy at the approaching warmth of the sun. Joy to have
survived another night. Joy to be meeting another day. Another day can
bring death and hardship as readily as it can bring life: loss of a
mate, nest, eggs or young. But a turn of the Earth is all it takes to
wipe these disappointments from the mind of a bird. I wonder how it
would be to be more like that; to let go of the past completely at the
end of every day and meet each new sunrise with joy.
Earth turns and the dawn races westwards from Shropshire and into Wales
(beyond my hearing but not beyond my dreaming) where Redstarts, Pied
Flycatchers and Wood Warblers join the Blackbirds and subtly change the
chorus’ accent. Like a Mexican wave the chorus travels on until it meets
the Atlantic, where Blackbirds cannot go, and there it falls silent.
But the energy driving it, the breaking dawn, continues until it meets
the eastern shores of North America where it rouses a new orchestra:
Ovenbirds, Blue Jays, Wood Thrushes, Meadowlarks and American Robins
who, in turn, give voice to their joy and sound to the Earth turning;
the singular music of our own, and only, sphere.