The Dawn Chorus—Requiem for a Birder

The last hour of the night seems darkest after tossing and turning to wake from strange dreams with a pounding heart. But there is a spell that can cast off the pall if we listen at an open window in the stillness of a spring morning.

The dawn chorus begins. Not only is there enchantment with the ancient symphony, but moments at peace with nature that help to face challenges of a new day.

The choir begins shortly before light in the east. A northern cardinal chants, wait, wait, wait … chew, chew, chew, chew from a favorite perch in the holly tree. He is joined by the baroque melody of a brown thrasher in a tulip poplar. A Carolina wren poking in a woodpile scratches notes even higher than top E on a violin. They are accompanied by a wood thrush in the back forty playing the flute and a piliated woodpecker drumming a staccato percussion on a hollow tree. The soaring music fades the terrors of a retreating night.

Northern cardinal
Northern cardinal: courtesy of Inge Curtis

This was a time the birder loved most of all. He rose before dawn to listen to the choir outside and watch for them coming for refreshment to his feeder as the gloaming turned to daylight.

He was old enough to notice the chorus was less dazzling than in his youth, and each year fewer of these friends visited his garden. He nodded gravely at news we have three billion fewer birds in North America today than in 1970, including many common backyard species.

And now the birder has gone, too. “Nothing stays, all changes,” wrote Virginia Woolf. That is a fine maxim for evolution, and a fact we have to accept without consolation.

Spring has not become silent. There are still birds that sing the same songs and as soulfully as ever. But tunes played by fewer pipers or a lonely bugler at dawn are received by those who remember glorious concerts more as elegies now for those we loved and lost.

To Geoff and his feathery friends: Requiem aeternam dona eis. ♬

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