Dawn chorus delights in the East of England

Firecrest singing at Sheringham Park

Spring has well and truly sprung and those prepared to clamber out of bed early will witness one of nature’s greatest phenomenons, the dawn chorus.

The voices of spring

As the days begin to lengthen and food becomes more plentiful, male songbirds are getting ready to breed. Early in March, native species such as robins, song thrushes and blackbirds start to sing. The chorus then reaches a cresendo in early May as migrant species such as warblers, chiffchaffs, blackcaps and cuckoos return to breed. 

Males tend to do all of the singing

Singing is generally confined to male birds, who sing for two reasons. The first is to attract a female, the second is to stake their territories and warn rival males away.

Singing requires enornmous amounts of energy, and the fittest, best fed males produce the strongest, most impressive songs. 

The best singers attract the females

Females are attracted to the best singers, as they are more likely to have a good territory and be better at raising their young. But did you know, as a general rule, once a male has attracted a female his singing will diminish? A bird that sings late into the breeding season has most likely failed to attract a mate.    

Spot a robin in the woods
A robin sits on a branch at Quarry Bank
Spot a robin in the woods

Why do birds sing in the morning?

There are most probably several reasons why birds sing in the morning. In the early hours of the morning the air is still, and sound transmission is up to 20 times better than midday. The dim early morning light also means that the songbirds are less visible to potential predators. 

There would also appear to be some truth in the saying the ‘early bird catches the worm’. The first birds start to sing around an hour before sunrise, these early risers include song thrushes, skylarks, robins and blackbirds. Their diet consists mainly of worms, who come to the surface in the cool of the night and who tend to burrow underground as the day heats and the dew evaporates.  

Smaller species such as warblers and wrens start to sing much later, probably because the insects on which they feed do not start to fly until the air warms up or because the insects are difficult to see in the half light.  

As the level of light increases and food becomes easier to find, the thoughts of the birds turn to food and the dawn chorus begins to fade away. 

The sounds of spring

To experience the dawn chorus, we'd recommend you get into position at least an hour before sunrise. Remember to wear plenty of warm clothing, as it can still be cold at this time of year. 

If you live near open grasslands listen out for the pee-wit calls of lapwings and the delightful song-flight of skylarks. Male skylarks fly up and hover over their territories singing continuously for many minutes and then parachute down. In wooded areas and bushes listen out for song thrushes, blackbirds, robins and wrens. 

Birds to listen out for

nightingale singing at Croome


Nightingales are best known for their vocal abilities. Males can sing for hours and some older birds have established quite the song repertoire. You can hear their song ring out in May and June.

Wicken Fen - Cuckoo in flight


The cuckoo's distinctive song is one of the few bird calls that just about anyone can identify, whether you're a birder or not. Listen out for their arrival from April.

A skylark in heather


Have you heard the saying 'be up with the lark'? The skylark is a farmland bird that's among the earliest to rise. Their song has influenced many poets including Blake and Wordsworth.