Alarm Bird

picture credit: Lorna Nisbet (click for link)

I woke just past 4am.

Dry throat. Drink water. Try not to register too many awake sensations so I can drop back into the black of sleep.

Turn over to find the cooler side of the pillow. The more comfortable twist of the quilt. My shoulders are cold. My legs are hot.

The window’s open. Perhaps I should shut the window. But that would mean getting out of bed.

I can hear the seagulls. It must be near dawn. The gap in the curtains gives a glimpse of night sky already fading.

I find myself wondering what time I’d have to wake to witness the dawn in full from night to daylight, counting off the birds as they enter the dawn chorus and sing the day into being. I’m so tired the thought of just how early I’d have to be awake in order to accomplish this is beyond consideration. At ten past four in the morning I’ve already missed the start. Then again, as we’re only a couple of nights past the solstice I could hardly have picked a time of year when the dark hours were any shorter. I’m at that sort of half-life stage of leaden tired in mind but bodily awake.

I can’t see them but I can picture the gulls wheeling about above. The houses, the trees, the telegraph lines, the roofs and chimneys, all the familiarities of the neighbourhood simplified to black cut-outs against a royal blue sky, like the prelude  to a shadow-puppet show, the rotating bird silhouettes the only sign that the scene is real and moving.


I remember my first summer in Cornwall. I moved to a summer let because my rented house was let out to holiday makers over July and August. It was hot. I attempted to sleep with the window open to cool the place down.  The noise of the seagulls was unbelievable, not even ceasing until long after darkness fell. About 1am there was a brief reprieve. Then an hour or so before dawn they’d start up their racket, dragging me to a hot wakefulness as uncomfortable as it was draining. I tried shutting the window. It was quieter but barely so. And almost instantly overheating. I couldn’t see how I’d ever get used to the noise, or how our old house had been so much quieter. But we hadn’t had the same concentration of nesting sites on our own and adjacent roofs. And it hadn’t been the breeding season.

By the third night I was tuning it out. Either that or I was so exhausted from being kept awake for all but two of the sleeping hours of the night that I just slept through it, open window or no.

By the end of the month I found myself straining my ears at the empty silence when I spent a night or two upcountry with friends and family. Something was missing. I couldn’t work out what.


At quarter past four this morning the blackbird started to sing. Apparently blackbirds are among the first of the birds to start, after robins and wrens. I’m not sure we have a robin in any of the neighbouring gardens, and although we have a wren or two the blackbird was so loud there was no chance of being able to discern any other birdsongs in the background. I knew without opening my eyes that he’d be sitting on the top of the telegraph pole at the end of my garden head raised to the heavens, beak opened wide. It’s a favourite perch of his at the opposite end of the daylight hours as he trills into the descending twilight.

He’s so loud. Shrill. Squawking. He reminds me of a vociferous guinea pig I used to have. The moment this thought pops into my head I remember how much said cavy hated the sound of birdsong. It’s not entirely unpleasant but about as sleep inducing as having an alarm clock shrilling persistently in my ear. Only there’s no snooze button.

Originally singing so loudly in order to penetrate the dense canopy of the woodland, studies have shown that blackbirds living in more urban areas have adapted the frequency of their already penetrating song to compete with the cacophony of low frequency sounds emitted by traffic and machinery. Urban robins have been seen (or heard) to sing later and longer, altering their ‘day’ patterns to accommodate artificial street lighting. As much  as I applaud the avian resistance against the paving of the countryside I wonder if such volume is so necessary in this town: it’s very rural as far as towns go (lack of light pollution, noise pollution, air pollution, tree-to-house ratio and square feet of sky per population etc).

Then I feel bad because of all twenty or so homes in the near vicinity, it’s quite likely I’m the only person awake and listening to this lone herald of the day.

Half an hour later and he’s still going. I’m aching for sleep. Far from succeeding in phasing out the sound of his song I’m starting to recognise patterns in his musical notation. He barely seems to pause for breath – how does something so small make such a loud sound anyway? – but when he does there’s a faint twitter from some smaller birds in the background and the raucous but fainter swirl of gulls that now seems a gentle lullaby in comparison.

I get out of bed. I shut the window. I can still hear him but it’s faint enough to consider sleeping through.

Back in bed there’s a small triangle of sky visible where I didn’t quite close the curtains. If I lift my head off the pillow I can just see the blackbird on his telegraph pole, head raised to the heavens, beak opened wide.


More on this?

Check out Next Door Nature’s blog for some more bird spotting:

You may also like on Open the Curtains:

Next Door's GardenNext Door’s Garden

more Mr Blackbird, plus an angry wren, several great tits, a half-eaten apple, and some greener grass on the other side of the wall

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