During a fraught period in my life many years ago I got into the habit of listening to a classical music show on public radio called Morning Pro Musica during my 40-minute drive to work. The program provided welcome solace at a time when my job was all consuming. The program’s host, Robert J. Lurtsema, was once described as “the world’s gentlest alarm clock” for his practice of starting each broadcast with five minutes of birdsong. I normally didn’t catch the beginning of the show at 7:00 a.m. and didn’t know about the birds until I happened to leave for work earlier than usual one morning. At first I thought I might have tuned into the wrong station. The birds kept singing for long minutes without interruption. In broadcast terms, this interlude seemed like an eternity. Was the station having technical difficulties? After a minute or two my anxious thoughts died away, and I began to listen. I realized it had been months since I had noticed birds singing or children’s laughter or any other musical note not on the radio. In those few minutes I felt reconnected to life.
For the better part of an hour after sunrise each day, birds mostly have the airwaves to themselves – speaking here not of the radio but of the natural world. As much as one might wish to believe they are greeting the dawn with a song, the birds are merely going about their business, staking out territory and attracting mates with their distinctive calls. Of course, what ornithologists characterize as a mating call might also be fairly described as a love song. And who’s to say that the dawn has not put birds in the mood? Regardless, their voices carry farther when the air is cooler, and there is less wind in the early-morning hours. Songbirds also have less competition for airtime from buzzing insects and traffic noise. According to one theory, different species of birds (and other creatures) occupy different “acoustic niches” to minimize overlapping frequencies and to create a harmonious soundscape.
As it happens, their “dawn chorus” coincides with what photographers refer to as the “golden hour” – not because of any musical accompaniment but because the quality of the light at that hour (and at dusk) is particularly conducive to outdoor photography. The sun is lower to the horizon, and its light travels farther in the atmosphere, emphasizing warmer tones on the color spectrum, reds and yellows, while blues are more diffused. The result is softer light and a golden glow that flatters everything it falls upon. Photographers are able to shoot directly into the sun, which at any other time of day would result in a blown-out image.
If you are up with the birds, as I often am, to take pictures at first light, you can easily appreciate why the sun was once worshipped as a god. There is something primordial about the dawn. Even though the sun has risen well over one trillion times since the earth began turning, it always seems as if the world is beginning anew. It is always the first day of creation, and God has once again summoned forth light from darkness. The sun spills over the horizon, and everything the light falls upon seems newly formed, bathed in golden light. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” God demanded of Job when he spoke to him out of the whirlwind. Job was nowhere to be found then, of course, and neither were we. But we can easily imagine being there when we are up with the birds to greet the dawn. We can imagine being there when, as God described it, “the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy."