Dawn chorus – the early morning bird concert – is fascinating to nature lovers, artists and dreamers alike. But it is also highly interesting for scientists.
Today we know that bird song fulfils many important functions, especially during the breeding season, for example to attract females or to defend territories against rivals. For bird researchers (ornithologists), the early morning is a very interesting time of the day because this is the time when most (song)birds are especially active. Although birds may keep singing throughout the day, their song behaviour is never as intense as during the early morning hours. Interestingly, each bird species begins their song at a specific time with respect to sunrise. This means that the sound of the bird concert will change its tune every morning when different species enter the stage. The sound also differs between regions, depending on which species are around to sing along – just like a concert sounds quite different if gentle flutes or electric guitars set the tone.
Not only time and place, but a number of other factors may also influence the dawn chorus, such as weather conditions (e.g. storm) or human-made noise (e.g. from air traffic). Hence, the dawn chorus of the Himalayan foothills will likely sound completely different from the one down at Piccadilly Circus in London (see noise maps, e.g.: http://noise.eea.europa.eu/) – and the latter will probably sound rather different on a busy Tuesday morning compared to on a rainy Sunday when a lot of people are allowed to sleep in.
We find this flexibility in bird behaviour absolutely exciting and would like to understand it better. In this special year of 2020, lockdown restricts a lot of human activity, thereby also tuning down a lot of human-made sounds, and leaving the centre stage to the bird dawn chorus – and we are here to listen very closely!
Soundscapes (from sound + landscape) reflect a lot of properties of a given habitat through their sound alone. Using the words of Bernie Krause : „While a picture may be worth a thousand words, a soundscape is worth a thousand pictures“ .
Sometimes, soundscapes change suddenly and drastically. A painful experience that Bernie witnessed when recording sound before and after logging activity in a Californian forest: despite reforestation efforts, the majority of birds had become silent,
even years after the logging event*. Other changes may occur more gradually, for
example due to the increase in road-traffic induced noise.
Thus, sound recordings or soundscapes may help scientists to become aware of longterm
changes in a habitat’s species composition, and to indicate where species
disappear and biodiversity decreases. Further, they may also help investigate the
influence of human-made noise on the song behaviour of birds.
Citizen science is based on the help of volunteers, for example for data collection or
analysis during a scientific project. With volunteer support, scientists are able to collect
much more data than they could ever achieve on their own. Even if the data are not
always of professional quality, they still produce exciting and important results. Last
but not least, citizen science has an educational aspect in that it transfers knowledge,
and provides food for thought.
In our project Dawn Chorus, we rely on citizen science to obtain sound recordings of
the early morning bird song from a multitude of locations simultaneously. These data
are complemented with information on time, date and location of the recording, and a
few simple questions about the current weather conditions and human-made
background noise. From this, scientists will be able to document the current state of
soundscapes, to compare it to the ones in the years to come, and to gain important
insight into human influence on biodiversity.
Many people have heard about bird species decline on the news, but they may not be
aware that this phenomenon is happening right now, literally in their own backyard.
The dawn chorus is a wonderful nature spectacle, and it is a useful indicator of species
diversity which we would like to make accessible. So join us in experiencing this
beautiful spectacle of nature, and engage – take a conscious listen!
As explained above, the dawn chorus sounds different, depending on where you are
and what time (with respect to sunrise) it is. To disentangle the effect of human
activities, e.g. noise, we need to control for other factors such as the time of day or the
current weather conditions, because these factors may also strongly influence the
This is why we require a LOT of recordings, preferably collected under the same
recording conditions, from many different locations. Ideally, each volunteer would
collect multiple recordings from the same location (1) over the course of the same
morning (before, during and after dawn), or (2) made at the same time, but distributed
across multiple days (ideally on a normal working day and a holiday). You will find
instructions on how to make an ideal recording here (https://dawn-chorus.org/en).
Based on the collected data, we hope to identify the species and timing (with respect
to sunrise) of bird song. A short questionnaire in the upload section aims to collect
additional data on location, time, current weather conditions, the exact temperature (if
available), the type of habitat (e.g. city balcony or country garden), as well as the
amount of human-made noise experienced during the recording.
The Citizen Science Platform Dawn Chorus is a project by BIOTOPIA (Bavaria’s new
museum of life sciences and environment) and the Foundation Arts and Nature.
Scientific support is provided by the Max Planck Society, via the Max Planck Institute for
Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany.
Dr. Bernie Krause, Bioacoustician
Prof. Dr. Manfred Gahr, Director, Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Seewiesen