A Variety of Thrush Songs: A Trio of Delights

By Michael Dover Gazette Contributing Writer

It was a warm, sunny May day last year and I was enjoying a bike ride at the Belchertown end of the Norwottuck Rail Trail when I heard it: clear and bright, my first wood thrush of the season. My first thought was “All’s right with the world.” That’s the effect this song has on me.

As the guides to birding by ear will tell you, ee-oh-LAY is the general form of the wood thrush’s song. This helps identify the singer, but the pleasure comes from listening to the huge number of variations on that theme and the sheer musicality of the sound.
Two days later, near the same spot, I heard its cousin the veery. To call the veery’s song flutelike, as some field guides do, fails to do it justice. Years ago, when I first learned to recognize the song, my companion described it as “like water trickling down a pipe.” Actually, I think it’s more accurate to liken the sound to two streams of water going down in tandem: Thrushes are masters of using their two voice boxes simultaneously to produce a magical sound that has captivated listeners for ages. More than one writer has described the thrush as singing a duet with himself.

Both the wood thrush and the veery are relatively close at hand, often occupying the forest edge, near roads and our backyards. But to hear the hermit thrush, the third of the trio of thrushes in our area, I had to wait until I was at our Vermont cabin. There we have enough deep woods to satisfy this bird’s need to live up to its name. (Don’t worry—you can hear them in our area, too, if you can find yourself far enough from human habitation.)

To my ear, the hermit thrush is indeed the supreme songster. Its basic song structure begins with a short- held note followed by a rapid trill up or down. But the song is anything but basic.

To hear a sample of thrush songs, visit these websites:
http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Wood_Thrush/sounds
http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Veery/sounds
http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Hermit_Thrush/sounds

According to Donald Kroodsma, a professor emeritus in biology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the hermit thrush has some nine songs, with a fantastic complexity of ordering the sequence among them. Its singing is an extended improvisation session, like a jazz riff or a classical cadenza. Like a human musician, the bird follows certain “rules” and repeats certain patterns, but it feels as if you’re hearing a new composition each time. The complexity, delicacy and intricacy of the hermit’s song (one writer described it as “a melody of tiny bells”) keep me eagerly awaiting each new verse in the hermit’s morning and evening concerts. Sometimes exultant, sometimes melancholy in my human perception, these songs are always simply gorgeous and remarkably moving.

Do these birds have a concept of beauty that parallels our own? Certainly they create and respond to complexity and musical variation. Kroodsma, who is the author of The Singing Lives of Birds (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), believes the songs elicit a “pleasure” response in female birds, for whom the songs are sung. Is pleasure the same as experiencing beauty? I doubt we’ll ever be able to understand fully the mind, if that’s even the right word, of another species—especially one whose life is so differently organized than our own. But that shouldn’t stop us from recognizing these birds’ songs as beautiful to us. Whatever nature’s “actual” intent in producing such sounds, we can simply be grateful that we get to hear them.

Michael Dover is a retired environmental scientist and member of the Hitchcock Center board.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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