Rich Burkmar

An economically curious ecologist

The Sound of the Earth turning

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.

Blackbirds at the Shropshire campsite

As 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… well… beautiful.

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 self-appointed conductor!

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.

The 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.