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Nature's alarm clock

Updated Tuesday, 27th April 2010

From Thomas Hardy's idyllic cottage at Higher Bockhampton, the Saving Species team listen to birdsong and discuss how nature and the dawn chorus have changed since Hardy's time.

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Interview with birdsong background

The Saving Species team are joined by Jeremy Powne from the Dorset Wildlife Trust, Marion Perris from the Dorset group of the RSPB and Ralph Pite, a Hardy biographer from Bristol University.

Copyright The Open University

Birdsong only

Copyright The Open University


[Sound of birds singing]

Presenter: It’s just before six o’clock, in fact it’s quarter to six, and if we open the front door, I wonder if this dawn chorus will be as Hardy heard it all those years ago.

[Opens door]

That wonderful song is coming from the heathland and woodland surrounding the cottage. It’s here Hardy was born in 1840 and grew up with nature literally on his doorstep.

Jeremy, do you think that the birds that we’re hearing now are the birds that Hardy would have heard?

Jeremy: I think we’re hearing the same birds but I think the intensity would have been much greater in his day. I think they would have been much the same species but more of them.

The Song Thrush is very, very close to us and really lovely, lovely to hear it. Close at hand also there’s a Robin but it seems to be really rather subdued by the Thrush, which is so loud. It’s wonderful really.

Presenter: Ralph, was there more heathland area around this cottage in Hardy’s time? Would that have affected the bird life do you think?

Ralph: Well, Hardy describes it as a cottage on the border between heathland and woodland, and he says that his grandfather who built the cottage planted trees around it, gradually bringing a bit of woodland out of the heath around and behind so that the heath came right up to the back of this cottage. And I think that might have had some impact on the species because he talks in his writing not only about the birds we’re hearing now, Blackbirds, Thrushes, Robins and so on, he also mentions Nightjar, which are a characteristic heathland species, which he says he hears their tune of one note around this cottage area.

Presenter: Why do birds sing during the dawn chorus, Marion?

Marion: Well, it’s the male birds that are singing, of course, and basically they’re doing that to establish a territory for breeding and also to attract a mate. Why they’re singing at dawn, at this time of the morning, well there’s several reasons. One, they’ve just woken up, they’ve got a lot to do, they’ve got feeding to do but it’s too early in the morning, it’s a bit cool for feeding. Insects won’t be around, for instance, for those that feed on insects. There’s time for a long, powerful song, and the calmness and stillness of the air is perfect for the sound to carry.

Also, they’re announcing their survival overnight. They’re saying to the males, I’m still around, it’s my territory so back off, and they’re saying to the females, I’m a tough guy, I’ve survived the night, I’ve got the good genes that I can pass on to your young.

Presenter: I think Blackbird song is very beautiful, almost as good as Thrush, isn’t it?

Jeremy: Yes, I think it is. Of course, Blackbird and Thrush and, indeed, Nightingale are all part of the same family, and that family tends to be very, very good songsters.

Presenter: And Ralph, Hardy had quite a fondness for Blackbirds, I think, didn’t he?

Ralph: Oh definitely, Blackbirds and Thrushes. He writes a lovely poem later in life about a thrush singing in the evening, The Darkling Thrush, and the kind of hope for the future which that prompted in him. They were kind of inspiring and encouraging sounds to his ears. And I was struck coming here today that he walked from this house three miles into Dorchester every morning as a schoolboy, and he must have been starting that journey before dawn and then walking every morning through this kind of noise and kind of been accompanied on his way to school by it. It’s a fascinating insight into how close he was to this experience.

Presenter: Just want to mention at this point that the birds have now been singing for around twenty minutes, twenty-five minutes.

All: Yes.

Presenter: And they’re still going strongly.

Jeremy: Yes, absolutely. In fact, the Robin must be right outside the door and, indeed, the Wren. They’ve come into prominence in the last few minutes as well.

Ralph: Yes, in Under the Greenwood Tree he talks about this time of year, this kind of April/May time, and talks about the birds becoming persistent intimates, and I kind of think, I haven't really understood the sense of that phrase until I was sitting here today because it’s really close to you and it really gets in your ears, doesn’t it, it’s amazing.

Jeremy: Yes, it does.

Presenter: Certainly, this morning, the birds are giving us a great deal of joy I think.

Jeremy: They are indeed, and I’ve started to pick up the Goldcrests now which is very nice because that’s another species which has probably suffered badly during the cold winter - lovely to hear those. I notice that the Chaffinch seems to have stopped singing now and we’ve gone over to the contact chorus, the chink, chink, chink characteristic call of the Chaffinch.

Presenter: He did write some very famous novels whilst in this house, didn’t he?

Ralph: Yes, his novel-writing career began towards the end of his twenties when he was kind of by profession an architect. But he was drawn constantly to writing and would come back from time in London where he was working as an architect, come back home to the family home and work here. There are stories also of his writing some of his novels actually while walking in the woods so that he would sort of take leaves from the trees. It sounds a bit fanciful but it seems to express the kind of closeness he felt between writing and being in the natural world that he would walk around writing as he walked.

Presenter: I think you can understand when you’re in the cottage just how close the natural world is. It’s just completely surrounding it.

Ralph: Oh, it’s right around you isn’t it, and, as I say, he often mentions both in his stories and his biographies how the heath is very close to this house and how in one story he tells about his childhood. His mother found him in his cradle as a baby with a snake curled up asleep on his chest and that sense that the heath animals, the ponies which used to graze the heath, the snakes and the ‘efts’, as he called them, were right in kind of around him as he grew up.

Marion: That would be a smooth snake or a grass snake and not an adder, one would hope.

Ralph: Well, let’s hope so. There is, in the Return of the Native, which is the novel he wrote later which really focuses on the heath, a character gets bitten by an adder and dies of or it contributes to her death. And so the heath is thought of as quite a kind of sinister as well as kind of benign presence in the books.

Marion: Yeah.

Presenter: There is a lot of work being done in Dorset, isn’t there, to regenerate some of the heathland?

Marion: There’s been a large project which started in 2000 and lasted five and a half years, finished in 2005, to restore heathland. They actually called it Hardy’s Egdon Heath Project.

Ralph: Quite right, too.

Marion: And that’s involved, a lot of the heathland has been lost, of course, since Hardy’s time but what was left, a lot of that, unless it was one of the nature reserves, was in a poor state, and what this project has done is to manage the heathland and create a habitat that’s got a variety, a mosaic of niches, if you like, and of flora that are just right for birds feeding and birds nesting, and using cattle or ponies to graze the heathland as well, which was certainly done before. And then surveys have shown that this work has resulted in an increase in Nightjars, I think a 36% increase since 1994 to 2006; an increase in Dartford Warblers. Not only here of course. There’s been similar work in some other parts of the country in the heathlands of Surrey and North Hampshire and in East Anglia, and all of this has brought back some of the birds that Hardy would have heard.

Presenter: So perhaps if we come back in ten or twenty years’ time we will hear what Hardy heard.

Marion: It will be even better then.

Ralph: I mean it seems all so appropriate that it’s called Hardy’s Egdon Heath because lots of the descriptions he provides in Return of the Native of heathland were really unusual at the time for a writer to celebrate this kind of landscape with its peculiar animals and it’s kind of unpicturesque qualities and to bring forward the beauty which had been missed is really down to Hardy, and the appreciation and cherishing and value which we now ascribe to heathland has got a lot to do with the writing he did.

When he writes about it, he’s always talking about people, kind of working it being kind of camouflaged, almost like animals within it, as if they’re kind of part of an environmental system in a way which kind of is intimate with their being. And I think, again, that’s a kind of side to his understanding of people in nature which was very unusual at the time and is again something which kind of we’re needing and learning to appreciate more, you know, as environmental degradation takes hold and our kind of role in that is understood better.

Presenter: Why would you recommend anybody get up really early and come and hear the dawn chorus, Jeremy?

Jeremy: I think because it is a very special experience it puts you into intimate contact with nature, if you like. It’s not something that you hear for the rest of the day and just being up early and hearing that is so special.

Marion: I can remember the first time I heard a dawn chorus which isn’t that long ago or maybe in the early Eighties on heathland, as it happens, and I remember going along, and I remember getting up and thinking ohh do I really want to go and listen to this, and when you got there, it was just a unique experience, building up as we’ve heard, and then this cacophony of sound and then suddenly, at some stage, dropping. Just wonderful!

Presenter: Ralph, you don’t get up very often and hear dawn choruses, I suppose?

Ralph: No, it’s not something I’ve done before. I’m not a birdwatcher and I’ve been struck today also by how if you stand outside, the dell in which the cottage is placed becomes a kind of amphitheatre, and it seems to be coming from all around you like a chorus, and it’s as if you’re in a crowd of birds - it’s amazing!

[Sound of birds singing]


Dawn chorus - how loud is yours?

Has birdsong changed in your area? Do you know which birds make up your dawn chorus? Join in the discussion on the dedicated iSpot forum for dawn choruses.

Chiffchaff singing Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Chris Ward





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