The experience of lockdown upended our regular routines – so much so that confirmed night owl ROSS ASTON determined he would wake up to hear the dawn chorus. Here he reflects on birdsong’s calming nature
Photography by Jack Davison Text by Ross Aston
Successful people wake up early. Painfully early, in fact. I tried to be successful once, got up at 4am to embrace the day and could hardly move. Some 90% of executives say they wake up before 6am on a weekday – Oprah Winfrey, TimCook, Jack Dorsey and the Queen are a few public figures who bank on the benefits of waking up at an ungodly hour. Not hitting snooze endlessly is said to crack lethargy, spark motivation and set you up for a productive day. Mornings are believed to be when we are at our most creative. Besides nausea, though, the only thing I noticed was the din of birds singing outside of my window. Hundreds of the feathered animals, all belting out their own individual cries for attention. It was magnificent.
I hadn’t seen 4am for years. Having always been a late sleeper, I’m now a freelancer – fortunate to have personal circumstances that allow me to shift my work hours much later in the day. Not in on alarm-clock oneupmanship, I was determined to wake up early again only to hear the birds. Gökottais one of those pinpoint-specific Swedish words that vaguely translates as “to go outside at dawn to hear the birds singing”. I was determined to gökotta.
It’s understood that getting up early may be good for you, but so is connecting with the outdoors. It makes sense to do so, particularly now. Interacting with the natural world has been shown to correlate with lower levels of anxiety, feelings of contentedness and overall wellbeing. GPs in Scotland dispense “nature prescriptions” as supplementary treatments for various illnesses. Hiking, simply standing still outside and birdwatching are all advised. More than any time before, I have to spend at least three evenings a week in my garden to retain adequate levels of social and professional functioning.
The strange confluence of current global events has meant people are suddenly much more aware of the wildlife around us. For a start, the reduction in noise pollution from air and car travel during the early stages of the coronavirus lockdown meant we were able to hear birdsong more clearly. A friend of mine asked her boyfriend to turn down the volume on a wildlife podcast, only to realise that it was actually the birds singing outside her London flat. They have always been there – but, bound to our homes and with a significantly slower pace of life, our minds have the space to notice things in ways we haven’t previously. The month of May marks the crescendo of early morning birdsong, when they are at their loudest in the year. It became a highlight of my diary.
Along with shape and colour, a bird’s distinctive chatter marks it out. Each species has its own lilt and melody. A nightingale is a show-off, a song thrush is an out-of-nowhere chart topper, a starling sounds like radio static, a chaffinch is a one-hit wonder, a swift moves like a TikTok timewaster, a bittern is a bass drop in avian form. The savviest of naturalists don’t even have to see the bird to know what type it is. My own attempts at differentiating species by their chirping have left me feeling as if I’m back at school and struggling with basic arithmetic. Some birdwatchers share onomatopoeic descriptions of songs on Twitter for fellow twitchers to identify. I rewatch Birdsong for Beginners on YouTube for the hundredth time, but I’m learning slowly. I read that some people even think of robins as the souls of lost loved ones. With a song as belligerent as theirs, I can easily believe it is the voice of my lovingly grouchy late grandfather.
Scrolling through the endless list of recordings on the Chirp app didn’t help it stick either. I’d get fixated on the calls of waning-population wading birds and other coastal rarities, despite living two hours from the sea. As it is, I’m not really fussed about naming everything and happy to recognise any normal bird in my village. After all, there’s beauty in the ordinary, as much as the unusual. The trill of a startled blackbird can be as profound as the call of the rarest raptor. You come to rely on the reassuring presence of the birds with which you share your surroundings. There will be the same pigeon or house sparrow that seeks out your window ledge for shelter and others that nest in the tree by your back door – you just have to stop and hear them.
Song is how a bird calls out for what it needs -to find a companion, to mark its territory and food source, to defend its family. Though it may sound lovely to our ears, the urgency and primal necessity of it reminds us of what’s important. Connecting with birdsong is to recognise that despite human troubles, the wild world continues on as it has for millennia. When you listen to it, you invite hope for the future into your thoughts.
Early risers supposedly get better quality sleep, achieve more goals and are generally more proactive in life. Despite this, I still wake up late, even now, and miss the morning chorus. Every day, before going to bed, I tell myself that tomorrow will be different, that I will get up early with the birds. And though I inevitably go on to sleep well past dawn, I slumber all the more soundly knowing that the birds will be out there tearing it up as the sun rises on a new day.
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