Henry Oliver spends the night at an island bird sanctuary to experience the dawn chorus.
This story originally ran in Barker’s 1972 magazine.
It starts early. I’d set my alarm for 4.45am, but by four everyone in the DOC bunkhouse is awake whether or not they want to be. The birds are singing. On Tiritiri Matangi, they always are.
“You want to make sure you’re deep in the bush when it starts,” I’d been told by an elderly volunteer when I arrived the previous morning. ‘It’ being the dawn chorus, the collective morning song of the diverse population of native and introduced birds that live on this small island wildlife sanctuary in the Hauraki Gulf.
I slept fully-dressed so just slide on my shoes and jacket and head out into the dark. You can’t use white lights on the island – they disturb the birds – but ahead of me, I see two red torch beams scanning left and right, leading the way to the maze of tracks. I leave mine behind – a full moon lights the sky, and I feel I should commit to the experience of waiting in the dark for the birds to sing. Why impose on them more than I need to?
There’s a track on the west side of the island under a dense canopy that everyone’s been told is the best place to hear the chorus. A handful of people are out of the bunkhouse, finding benches in the bush to sit and listen. One woman brought her sleeping bag. Twenty or so minutes later, when my butt is cold and sore, I envy her foresight.
Soon, out of the low hum of indistinguishable bird ambience, a three-note call emerges louder, clearer than anything else. It’s short and clipped – compressed. Two quick high notes, then one lower and longer – ba-da-daaaaa, ba-da-daaaaa. If I heard it in a song, I’d think it had come from a synthesiser. Then, another – the same sounds but a slightly different pitch, a slightly different rhythmic emphasis. They’re calling to each other.
It’s these early birds that slowly wake the chorus. Behind them, other rhythmical elements join in, some longer and staggered, some softer and more lyrical. There are scratchy chirps, sweet high tweets, bodily squawks, warbling yodels – some interacting, some responding, most on their own trip, just fighting for morning air time.
The day before, I talked to a birdwatcher who told me if you stand absolutely still, are as silent as possible, and as patient as possible, you’ll eventually see something magical. The rule holds in the dark at five-something in the morning. I sit as still as I can, fighting my impulse to fidget, to take notes, to jiggle my restless right leg. It’s hard – especially in the cold – but the longer you can be silently still the closer the birds sound. Any noise and they’ll know you’re there. It’s a stark reminder: the only world we know is the world that’s changed by our presence. We can never know what it’s like to experience life without us in it. When Captain Cook anchored off New Zealand, one of his crew described the dawn chorus as ‘deafening’. On Tiritiri, it’s loud enough to wake you, but far from what it would have been. How many birds, I wonder, would the men on that boat have been listening to?
We anthropomorphise animals. We say the birds are ‘singing’, and we talk about their ‘songs’ but even if we consider their sounds music, it’s more like instruments than vocals. And while we like to frame their collective sounds in classical terms – ‘chorus’, ‘orchestra’ – the cumulative effect of dozens of distinctive, but to many of us unrecognisable, calls sounds more like improvised experimental music. The repetition is never perfect or stable. Patterns emerge out of a cacophony only to dissolve as soon as your ears have put what they’re hearing into some acceptable order. It’s constantly shifting, with voices entering, dominating, receding and then they’re gone. They’ve said their piece, they’ve made their point. They’ve got shit to do.
While I sit in the cold dark, the slowly lightening sky becoming visible through the canopy, my thoughts wander. I try to focus on what I’m hearing, but my mind adds its own music. I think of the Beatles song ‘Free As A Bird’, released in the mid-90s, which takes a post-Beatles John Lennon demo and adds new contributions from Paul, George and Ringo. Amid the birds’ bleeps, chirps and squarks, the song’s refrain (Free as a bird / It’s the next best thing to be / Free as a bird) goes around and around in my head.
Birds are singing all the time – talking to each other, hoping to find a mate or establish their territory. They sing to attract and sing to deter, but they sing loudest on spring mornings. And no-one really knows why. Some think it’s because they need sunlight to do their work – to find food and survive – so they might as well use the pre-day darkness to do all that communicating.
What else are they going to do? Others think the calls are signals of strength and virility, and the earlier and louder the call, the more virile the caller.
The more I listen, the more I hear the desperation in the voices. Birds aren’t free at all, I think. They work bloody hard. All day, every day. They’re not flying around for fun. They’re looking for food and sex. They’re caring for their children, building homes, patrolling for threats to their existence. They’re migrant workers. Refugees. When a predator comes or the weather changes, they’re out of a home, looking for somewhere new, somewhere safe. They’re not free at all, not in the sense we think about it. They just look free because they can fly.
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