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Listen to the dawn chorus

The first Sunday in May is International Dawn Chorus Day, and there’s no better place to listen to birdsong than your local canal.

Chaffinch on a branch Male chaffinches are more brightly coloured than females

Our charity's research shows that spending time by water can help you feel happier and healthier. This spring, take a morning stroll by the canal and be rejuvenated by the melody of birdsong.

What time is the dawn chorus?

To experience the dawn chorus in all its full splendour, you’ll need to get up early. Our ecologists tell us the first birds burst into song around 30 minutes to an hour before sunrise. But if you’re more of a night owl than a lark, don’t worry – the singing will continue well into the morning.

Which bird starts the dawn chorus?

This can vary depending on the weather and where you are. The first bird to sing is usually the blackbird, and then it’s not long before other birds wake up and join in the chorus.

Listen closely and you’ll hear the song thrush singing out its repetitive calls. The robin has a nice sweet song which sounds quite different. Soon after birds such as wrens, dunnocks and even woodpigeons start their various calls. By now the sun is rising fast and more and more birds will be singing. Across 2,000 miles of our canals and rivers, ducks will start quacking on water, warblers such as chiffchaffs or blackcaps will start their warbled song and swifts will start screaming in the sky. The more diverse the habitat is, the greater diversity of bird song you can enjoy – which is why we work hard to #KeepCanalsAlive.

Listen to birdsong – eight of our favourite dawn chorus birds

Robin perched on a log Robins sing all year-round


Sounds like: A silvery, pure song including a variety of high-pitched, drawn-out notes which can increase in speed.

Audio: Andrew Harrop /

Blackbird perched on wooden fence The blackbird's song is one of the most beautiful and familiar in the morning chorus


Sounds like: Rich and mellow flute-like whistles with a relaxed, sometimes blurred pace and short pauses between phrases.

Audio: Frank Lambert /

Wren singing from a branch An adult wren weighs about the same as a £1 coin


Sounds like: A surprisingly loud burst of song with consistent, regular phrasing. The sound can sometimes be harsh or scolding, including churrs, chatters and rattles.

Audio: Mike Ball /

Dunnock singing from a fence post A dunnock is similar in size to a robin


Sounds like: A short, fast and distinct warble which is flatter and less tuneful than the robin or blackbird's song. Bursts of song can last two or three seconds.

Audio: David M /

Song thrush sitting on fence post The song thrush is known for its habit of hitting snails against a rock to break the shell

Song thrush

Sounds like: Tuneful variety of short, high-pitched phrases. These are usually repeated two or three times in quick succession and can sound cross or scolding.

Audio: David M /

Woodpigeon sleeping on fence post The woodpigeon's coo is distinct from other songs in the dawn chorus


Sounds like: Repeats the same gruff, low-pitched cooing phrase consisting of five notes in total.

Audio: Patrik Aberg /

Blackcap perched on a green branch with a ladybird in its mouth Blackcaps are increasingly staying year-round in the UK


Sounds like: A sweet, tuneful warble which begins with chattering sounds and ends in clear, flute-like notes. In some ways it resembles the rich, fruity tones of blackbird song but is not so slow and languid.

Audio: Richard Dunn /

Chifchaff perched on winter branch Chiffchaffs can be heard from as early as February


Sounds like: This one is easy to spot as the chiffchaff simply shouts its name over and over again, with the odd occasional note added in.

Audio: Alexander Lees /

Why do birds sing?

Birds usually sing for one of two reasons. The first is to tell other birds to stay away. Birds are very territorial and some, such as the magnificent kingfisher, will fight an opponent to the death to defend their territory against other males.

The second reason is to attract or communicate with a mate. Not all birds find partners straight away and some birds nest later in the spring than others. Birds also sing to keep in touch with their partner back at the nest, however these calls are usually quieter and less regular to avoid attracting predators.

Enjoy the dawn chorus

Head down to your local canal to enjoy the dawn – or the evening chorus – and feel better by water. Find your nearest towpath below.

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All images above credit Amy Lewis

Last Edited: 08 May 2024

photo of a location on the canals
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