by Christopher Bobryk
Music has the power to evoke an emotional response in people that promotes healing and improves our overall well-being. Perhaps something many of us could benefit from right now. Luckily, we have our very own symphony playing in our backyards every morning, bellowing from the treetops, powerlines, or even the gutters of your garage. The burbles, buzzes, seets and trills of the dawn chorus are here to help us through some tough and uncertain times. All we need to do is listen.
Interacting with nature can have profound positive effects on our mental and physical health. These impacts can be seen in communities where increasing access to green spaces, blue spaces (areas surrounding water), street trees, or urban gardens are creating a sense of place that provides solace or reprieve from hectic urban environments.
This innate connection with nature is a powerful driver for preserving landscapes and ensuring accessibility to these natural areas. However, in our current state of social distancing and self-quarantine, it may be difficult for some to get out into a sanctuary or park, especially city folks sheltered at home, where access to nature may already be limited.
Simply listening to what a morning chorus sounds like is an opportunity, right now, for us to gain back a little bit of normality in our lives. What we hear in a dawn chorus can be a great reminder that the world is much larger, complex, and beautiful than we often realize.
The dawn (and dusk) choruses by our avian friends are a spectacular and mysterious part of our everyday soundscape. Scientists do not really know why this phenomenon occurs, although a couple theories suggest the sunrise singing helps birds defend territories and find mates. The amazing part is that we can observe this phenomenon from the comfort of our homes, apartments, backyards, courtyards, or city streets.
In early Spring, we begin to hear the raspy voices of common backyard residents working hard to hone their voice boxes, or syrinx – a special organ that only birds have at the top of their windpipes. For instance, the mumbled tuks and sharp yeeps from an American Robin (Turdus migratorius) can be heard well before the sun peeks through your window. These are welcoming tunes that signal the grip of Winter is relaxing a bit.
Not all choruses sound that same, either. The quality and complexity of a chorus is largely affected by the type and structure of habitats available to support a variety of songbird species. An area that has a greater diversity of natural structures, like trees, shrubs, tall grasses, or waterways, is likely to hold greater biodiversity, which often rewards you with a kaleidoscope of sounds.
Unfortunately, the scale and rate of urban development continues to threaten the shape, function, and legacy of natural areas. We are losing soundscapes at an alarming rate, some which may never return. The noises affiliated with urbanization and growing road networks have an immense effect on how birds communicate, to a point where some species alter their singing when faced with continuous human-made noises.
The mission of MNA is vital to protecting our natural resources and fostering more livable communities for future generations. The critical work of protecting natural areas is evident in the 180 nature sanctuaries permanently set aside for our exploration. By protecting ecosystems, we are protecting the soundscapes that define these environments, too; a natural resource worth preserving.
I recently explored the Anna Wilcox and Harold Warnes Memorial Nature Sanctuary, in Shelby Township, and recorded a short moment spent standing among a cohort of towering tulip poplars (Liriodendron tulipifera) and beech trees (Fagus grandifolia). The acoustic signature of this preserve is unique and will change over time – offering new acoustic experiences to discover as the seasons change.
This is a unique time in our lives to take a minute (or two) to really hear what’s happening around us. Think about finding that moment early one morning, maybe just for yourself or family, and celebrate the theme song of Spring.