Scientists and artists have used the drop in noise pollution during the coronavirus lockdown to create the first global public sound map of the spring dawn chorus.
Throughout May, people around the world have uploaded about 3,000 early morning bird recordings made on their phones to the Dawn Chorus website, where they are being shared to help conservation and to create public art.
The soundscape project is inspired by the pioneering work of the bioacoustician Bernie Krause and is led by Prof Michael Gorman, the founding director of the Biotopia museum in Munich, Germany.
Gorman said the idea was created rapidly after Covid-19 led to lockdowns around the world: “Suddenly the natural world could be heard more clearly. It is a moment to stop and listen, to record and share the unique acoustic fingerprint of the bird species of your local area.”
Early results shared with the Guardian reveal diverse wild symphonies – a red-wattled lapwing chirps through a local lockdown in Pune, India, and in Munich an enchanting flute-like call of the golden oriole is heard sending his melody across a park – but they also document losses.
On the doorstep of Krause’s temporary home in Sonoma, California, a northern mocking bird and ashy-throated flycatcher greet sunrise. His previous home burned down in the 2017 wildfires, along with his 15,000 nature recordings, which luckily he had backed up.
Krause, the author of The Great Animal Orchestra and founder of Wild Sanctuary, said: “Normally, the dawn chorus in this rural grape-growing agricultural area of northern California is populated with white crowned sparrows, song sparrows, juncos, California towhees and American robin. But the ongoing drought that began in 2011 and continues today, combined with the damage that the recent fires in our area have caused, seems, in combination, to have affected the vocal populations and the representative density and diversity. Our records indicate that spring now occurs two weeks earlier than 15 years ago.”
Recordings from London show that the early rising birds start to perform in sequence. The first to start singing are blackbirds and robins, piping up at about 4.20am. Following them come woodpigeons, carrion crows, magpies and goldfinches, who in turn are followed by dunnocks, sparrows, blackcaps and parakeets. Meanwhile in Scarborough, squawking gulls conjure an evocative British seaside soundscape.
“We hope to encourage people, even from windows and balconies, to make and share recordings of the dawn chorus at this exceptional and challenging time, when human activity is drastically reduced,” said Gorman.
Dr Lisa Gill, who is analysing the results, said: “Some are simply beautiful: the golden oriole, the peacefulness of raindrops and blackbird song.” Listening to sound reveals a very different hierarchy to visual observation: “The blackbird and the great tit are the most frequent, but this is about where the similarity ends.”
In Europe, the cuckoo, blackcap, wren and chiffchaff fly up the list.
“Little brown birds are relatively difficult to spot and distinguish visually, but easily detected by ear – and who doesn’t know what the cuckoo sounds like?” said Gill. “I believe most people identify birds by vision, which, as we can see, really influences the outcome.”
The project to capture the dawn chorus will be repeated annually and made available to the public to use in the creation of art and to help scientists monitor long-term changes in habitat quality and wildlife populations.