The birds are getting louder: untangling the dawn chorus with Chris Watson

Birds are able to discriminate between waveforms in a way we cannot - and their cries are mutating.

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Broadcasting House
BBC Radio 4

“We’re asking if the dawn chorus is getting louder. We’re looking into it and have unravelled an amazing story for the ear.” This was a brief report on Broadcasting House (Sundays, 9am) – just four minutes, if that – but powerful. The nature sound recordist Chris Watson had recorded a dawn chorus in Northumberland that “quickly became a dawn solo” because a wren perched near the microphone had dominated the soundtrack. (“So much energy and vigour in such a tiny bird!”) He played the recording – a deafening trill, a blur, which to other wrens is heard in eloquent, individual notes.

Birds are able to discriminate between waveforms in a way we cannot. Watson played back the recording at half-speed to show the trills resolving into discrete phrases, and it was as startling and eerie as the moment in a horror movie when someone descrambles a tape recording at a seance and you hear a voice saying, clear as day, “The body is under the stairs.” It reminded me of speaking to a friend on the phone last week and not being able to hear him properly because of a blackbird outside his window in Hammersmith, singing in the most penetrating way. My friend said that this bird had taken to sitting there all day, and that its voice seemed to him louder than ever.

The Northumberland report failed to ruminate, but is this sort of thing simply our current dry weather conditions rendering all sound intense, or a more profound species change? Such things do happen. There has been some suggestion that the base hum of bees is getting slightly louder, and higher, too. Possibly this has something to do with disease making their wings smaller, and the increased, more frantic fluttering producing a lighter but far keener sound. Such X-Men-like mutations deserve more than snatched reports. Here’s hoping that Natural Histories, the just-announced, 25-part weekly series on Radio 4, made in partnership with the Natural History Museum (starts 2 June, 11am), might touch on these things. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 24 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, What does England want?