Dawn – a chorus or a cacophony?

 

 

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The blackbird often leads the chorus, like an avian Gareth Malone
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And early bird in full song

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 18th May, & the Gazette & Herald on 25th May 2018).

The insomniacs and early risers among you will have noticed that as the mornings are getting lighter, so the noise produced by our energetic bird population is getting louder.

I have a love-hate relationship with the dawn chorus, depending how much sleep I’ve had during the night. If I’m well rested, then it’s like uplifting music to gently come round to. After a wakeful night, however, it’s more like an unpracticed school orchestra warming up in my garden.

Like the call of the cuckoo I mentioned last week, the arrival of the dawn chorus is another sign that winter is behind us. The chorus is predominantly made up of male birds looking for love, and those with the loudest songs quickly attract partners. The bird produces his tune from an organ called the syrinx, and a lusty syrinx draws the females like bees to pollen. His spirited birdsong saps much of his energy, and so not only does he have to be fit, but he must be an excellent hunter to ensure he has enough food to keep his strength up. So if he can be heard above the other members of the chorus, discerning females will assume that he is likely to not only father healthy chicks, but also be a reliable source of sustenance for the growing family.

The dawn chorus season lasts from late April through to early June, and once a bird has secured his lady love, he is no longer required to sing so loudly. So as the season progresses, fewer birds take part. It’s likely that you will hear the odd bird singing a lonely tune at dawn late on in the season, but sadly he’s probably been saddled with an inadequately-performing syrinx and as such, is destined to remain single and loveless.

As my dad explains in his column from 20th May 1978, there’s an order in which the birds sing the daily chorus, and more often than not it’s the blackbird who starts them off. He is one of our finest songsters and, like the bird equivalent of Gareth Malone, he leads the feathered choir melodiously towards the new day. Soon his contemporaries, such as the song thrush, the wood pigeon, the robin, the turtle dove, the pheasant, the willow-warbler, and the wren all join in.

As the sun comes up, the chorus diminishes, usually lasting from half an hour before to half an hour after sunrise. This is because that once the day has fully dawned, then the insects, seeds and nuts that the birds feed upon become easier to spot. The sounds that you hear during the day are mostly bird calls which are a type of communication, such as alerts to danger, disputes between rivals, or messages to one another.

There’s quite a difference between birdsong and bird calls. Calls are short, simple sounds, whereas songs consist of a more complicated and longer sequence of notes. There is some debate about whether birds can sing just for the sake or enjoyment of it. But when I watch a blackbird in full throttle near the top of the poplars by my house, he certainly looks to be enjoying himself.

The dawn chorus is a phenomenon that happens all over the world, and the first Sunday in May is now International Dawn Chorus Day where we are invited to get up early and appreciate one of nature’s most entertaining performances. The day came about in the 1980s when broadcaster and environmentalist Chris Bailey hosted a birthday party at 4am specifically so that his guests would enjoy the dawn chorus, and it grew from there, with 80 countries now participating. Events are organised all over the UK by bodies such as the Wildlife Trust, the RSPB and the National Trust, so that we can all learn to appreciate the wonder of such a spectacle.

As I’m writing this a few days before Sunday 6th May, I’m yet to make up my mind whether to rise early or not, as in recent days, I have already heard the dawn chorus several times thanks to a doggie guest who seems to want to make sure I don’t miss it! So, as he will have gone home by Sunday, I might just take the opportunity to grab a much needed sleep in!

 

The goat was Cooked

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Captain James Cook, who was born in Whitby
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A replica of The Endeavor near the Whitby coast. Captain Cook’s original vessel was built in the town
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A painting depicting the death of Captain Cook

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 27th April, & the Gazette & Herald on 25th April 2018).

Following my column in January about mascot goats, I was intrigued to find out from Dad’s column from 29th April 1978 that one of North Yorkshire’s most famous sons had his own companion goat.

Captain James Cook took a goat on one of his famous voyages, and she was so important, that we have a record of her 1772 death, the anniversary of which falls this week on 28th April.

Dad says he didn’t know its name, but “such was the fame of this goat that it was admitted to Greenwich Hospital as a pensioner. My information is somewhat scant on this subject, for I do not know the gender of the animal, nor its age.”

Well of course, that was a challenge to me to fill in some of the blanks about this famous creature, and those of you paying attention might have spotted that I’ve already revealed one fact – the goat was a she.

There was a very practical reason why Cook would take a female goat – she was a constant source of fresh milk. In his time, illnesses were rife among sailors who spent months away at sea with poor hygiene and little access to fresh food or water. Life-threatening illnesses such as dysentery, typhus and scurvy thrived due to malnutrition and dirty, cramped living quarters. Dr Samuel Johnson described the life of a sailor as like ‘being in jail with the chance of being drowned.’

Often, crews would return from long voyages with barely a third of their number alive. Author Jonathan Lamb has written about scurvy several times, and says: “In 1499, Vasco da Gama lost 116 of his crew of 170, in 1520 Magellan lost 208 out of 230, and in 1742, George Anson lost more than 1,300 of his compliment of almost 2,000 – all mainly to scurvy.” (It makes me wonder just how many bodies still lie at the bottom of our oceans?)

Captain Cook’s first global expedition in 1768 was in the Whitby-built HMS Endeavour, aiming to reach Tahiti for the Transit of Venus (where the earth, sun and Venus all aligned), which would help them measure longitude at sea, an opportunity that only came around about once every 125 years. He took with him an elite team of scientists, including an astronomer, two naturalists and eminent botanist Sir Joseph Banks.

It was Banks to whom the goat belonged, and it had already circumnavigated the globe with him, so had well-honed sea legs. In Robert Chamber’s 1864 Book of Days, a compendium of interesting facts, he mentions this famous goat and calls it simply ‘The Well-Travelled Goat’, so it’s not surprising my dad couldn’t find out its name.

Cook was determined to change the bad habits of his sea-faring predecessors by implementing a strict regime of discipline and hygiene, and carried the best nutrition possible. It was already known that citrus fruit could prevent scurvy, but they had no way of preserving the fruit on board. Instead, Cook ensured his men were very well fed, taking along vast quantities of sauerkraut, and whenever they landed in port, they stocked up on as much fresh fruit and green vegetables as possible.

Previously, sailors were used to using excrement-filled slop buckets in their filthy living quarters to relieve themselves, but Cook set aside a specific area on the ship for a toilet. Severe punishments were meted out to those caught going to the loo anywhere else and there was a regimented cleaning rota to ensure the ship was kept as clean and bug-free as possible.

It has been reported that Cook lost none of his men to scurvy on any of his three epic sea voyages, and although that fact has been disputed, it is clear that the health and wellbeing of his men were top priorities. Undoubtedly he had a far better survival rate than most and set the standard for successors to follow.

As for the goat, she was rewarded for her loyal service by being allowed to graze out her days among the green pastures of Kent. Her high status was reflected in an engraved silver collar which the grateful Sir Joseph Banks bestowed upon her. Dr Samuel Johnson himself wrote the latin inscription which, once translated, read:

“In fame scare second to the nurse of Jove,
This goat, who twice the world has traversed round,
Deserving both her master’s care and love,
Ease and perpetual pasture now has found.”

(Sources: captaincook.org.uk, mediographia.com, wellcomelibrary.org (Nicola Cook), bbc.co.uk)