Nature's Secrets

The dawn chorus: Nature's best concert

CORRESPONDENTJune 20, 2011 

As I come over the hill, I hear the wood thrush singing his evening lay. This is the only bird whose note affects me like music, affects the flow and tenor of my thoughts, my fancy and imagination. It lifts and exhilarates me ... It is a medicative draught to my soul. It is an elixir to my eyes and a fountain of youth to all my senses...

Henry David Thoreau, Journal, 1853

The time was 4:24 a.m. I sat upright in bed, awakened by an inspirational choir that just burst into sound. Vacationing in the woods of northern Vermont, I took a June sojourn back to my childhood forests of New England. Sleeping until noon is an obvious privilege of vacation, but late sleepers in the short Northern summer miss one of the best musical events of the year.

The red-breasted robin was the first songster on nature's program. Opening up the dawn chorus with a melodious, cheerful message, it announced to the forest denizens that sunrise was imminent. Soon, that dawn harbinger was joined by other robins, a trio in full song. As if not to be outdone, the white-throated sparrows trilled, "Oh sweet Canada, Canada." Almost 150 years after Thoreau described New England songbirds, their melodies have remained remarkably true over time.

Within 10 minutes of the robin's wake-up song, the entire hillside was in full symphony - red-eyed vireo, house wren, bluebird, goldfinch, ovenbird, song sparrow, eastern wood peewee. I was awestruck and wide awake - no going back to bed now. By 5 a.m., all musicians were in full song. Suddenly the forest quieted for a brief lull. One soloist took center stage. Its flutelike song and resplendent trills filled every hollow of the forest, sending chills down my spine. Thoreau was correct in saying that the wood thrush "is an elixir to my eyes and a fountain of youth to all my senses."

In North Carolina, the dawn chorus in downtown Raleigh is very different. Robins provide the wake-up call (often a predawn solo!), following soon after by Carolina wrens, cardinals, mockingbirds. As an urban dweller, I rejoice to have feathered residents announcing the day.

After hearing the wood and hermit thrushes in the spruce boughs of Vermont, my annual pilgrimage back to childhood is complete. Like an opera buff, I am willing to travel great distances to hear my favorite singers. By midmorning, the forest is relatively quiet. Having faithfully announced the new day, my feathered musical troupe moves from song to other activities - nest-building, tending to their young, foraging for food and defending territories. There is something inspirational, almost celestial, about the dawn chorus. Birds seem to celebrate each new day with great optimism, but after a stunning performance, they move on to the business of survival.

Meg Lowman is an N.C. State professor and forest canopy expert who directs the Nature Research Center, N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. Online: www.canopymeg.com.

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