By Michael Blencowe
People and Wildlife Officer
Well, it’s been a long, dull, wet winter but it’s time to banish your blues because spring is finally on the way. One of the most noticeable signs that spring is here is the start of the dawn chorus.
Imagine if we had to do it. Imagine that first thing every morning we had to stake a claim to our property by pulling on our dressing gowns, marching out onto our front lawns, taking a deep breath and singing a song. Sussex would awaken to a cappella cacophony of show tunes, power ballads and rock anthems pouring from porches and patios, backyards and balconies. Because if you weren’t out there, patrolling your property every morning with a raspy rendition of ‘Hey Jude’, your neighbours would assume you’d gone and they’d muscle in. If you overslept you’d wake to find Jeanette from two doors down screeching ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ on your doorstep and you’d have to see her off with your version of ‘River Deep, Mountain High’.
Throughout March male birds are aggressively establishing their breeding territories. In the absence of bricks and barbed wire, their songs build the boundaries around their little bits of Sussex. It’s vital they sing every morning. After a day dodging cats, cars, windowpanes and sparrowhawks the defiant songs of these feathered Frank Sinatras inform their neighbours that they’re still alive and still king of the hill. Top of the heap.
Yet to our innocent ears this warzone of warbles and whistles is a stirring celebration of the passing of winter and the arrival of spring which fills our hearts with the promise of the summer to come. Bernstein, Britten, Beethoven and Brian Wilson all rolled into one. At the first hint of dawn, in the still, silent air, this free music festival begins. And what a line-up! Local duo robin and blackbird open the show with their laid-back, soulful crooning. Then that little bird with the big attitude, the wren, cranks it up with his rockin’, rollin’ rattle. The symphony builds as the sun rises. We’re joined by a supergroup; CSD&G (chaffinch, song thrush, dunnock & great tit). It’s an amazing, uplifting performance whether you’re trying to identify who’s singing what or just want to enjoy the free show.
Of course not all bird song is music to our ears. In the high treetops in March the rooks are broadcasting their croaky calls with a voice that sounds like Tom Waits coughing up a hairball. The first sound that a newborn rook hears is other rooks; lots of them. It’s a sound that will surround it every day for the rest of its life. Rooks are one of our most sociable birds. They’ll live, love, feed and fight together – team players from the rookery to the grave.
If you go for a walk in the countryside in March look (and listen) for your local rookery. There’s a definite pleasure to be had from watching a bustling rookery – the sort of pleasure you get from pulling up a deckchair and watching a neighbour hard at work in their garden. High in the trees the rooks are busy: carrying twigs back to their nests, building their nests, stealing twigs from their neighbour’s nest when he’s not looking, getting into a fight with the neighbour when they’re caught. It’s a tree-top soap opera.
It can be easy to dismiss them as unattractive, plain black birds with but look closer and you’ll see the rook’s plumage contains a hidden beauty – an iridescent sheen which gives the bird a flash of exotic purple and green. Loose feathers hang low to their knees like a pair of baggy shorts, the sort favoured by teen skateboarders or middle-aged men who listen to The Foo Fighters.
Sure, that raucous ‘KAAH’ may not rival the blackbird or robin’s song but the communal cacophany gives constant reassurance to every individual rook that it belongs within the team.