A Shakespeare Among Birds

The wood thrush's true beauty is concentrated in his enchanting voice

08-01-2004 // Robert Winkler

Going Wild: Adventures with Birds in the Suburban Wilderness by Robert Winkler. Copyright © 2003 Robert Winkler. Published by National Geographic Books. Reprinted by permission.

 

 A Shakespeare Among Birds magazine layouts

ON A SUMMER EVENING I was caught in the crossfire of dueling wood thrushes, each defending his portion of the forest. Their chosen weapons were their voices; melodies were their ammunition. Each sought to wound the other’s pride, but their sweet fluting pierced only the evening silence. I was moved, but both wood thrushes stood their ground.

I doubt that the duelists saw one another, because the wood thrush is content to pour out his nocturne from the middle of a low limb draped by leaves. He needs no approving audience and can project his voice without resorting to a singing perch in the treetop. The brown-backed, speckle-breasted, eight-inch wood thrush only looks drab. All of his beauty is concentrated in his voice. Let the scarlet tanager take the prize as the forest’s flashiest dresser. Among his winged brethren, the song of the wood thrush has no equal.

He sings more enchantingly than any bird I know. Lyrical, liquid and loud, his voice has beauty and depth to match nature’s. On the trail, I often find myself stopping to admire the wood thrush’s gift.

After wintering mainly in Mexico and Central America, wood thrushes return north to breed. The male’s echoing melody challenges his rivals, wakes the raccoon and serenades the woodland sojourner. In California they don’t hear wood thrushes, which in summer occur only in the eastern forest. It’s enough to prevent me from moving West.

His singular talent won this common bird the unabashed affection of two of America’s foremost naturalists, an artist and a writer. While traveling in Europe, John James Audubon got homesick for “the sweet melodious strains of that lovely recluse, my greatest favorite, the Wood Thrush.” Henry David Thoreau said, “He touches a depth in me which no other bird’s song does,” and he called the wood thrush “a Shakespeare among birds.”

Ancient magic lives on in the woods. You can go there and hear what Audubon and Thoreau heard, the same song Native Americans heard in the virgin forest. The Pilgrims must have heard it, too, and perhaps the wood thrush comforted them in their wild new world.

The wood thrush’s song consists of several phrases, variations on his basic ee-o-lay theme, in quality like a flute but richer, not airy. Each phrase usually concludes with a high-pitched chord. Throaty utterings audible at close range may introduce the next phrase. The song’s ending is sometimes marked by a downsliding note that slows and trails off. After a pause, the song is repeated. Occasionally, the wood thrush launches into a series of sustained intonations, a haunting counterpoint to his primary song.

There is wide variation in the singing ability of wood thrushes. Some are almost mechanical, others merely sweet—the inspired wood thrush sings with a certain soulfulness. He plays his fine vocal instrument with great sweetness, yet there is an undercurrent of sadness. He speaks to me of struggle and survival, of loss and rebirth, and ultimately of hope. He awakens me to the indefinable yearnings that humans and wood thrushes share.

The thrushes, a family that includes the American robin and the eastern bluebird, are known for their vocal skill. Some have argued that the wood thrush’s close relative, the hermit thrush, is the better singer, but the hermit thrush’s ethereal song strikes me as too heavenly. The voice of the wood thrush, touched by earthly matters, resonates more powerfully with the human condition.

He can sing with such feeling and musical sophistication, yet we call him a wild animal. Is it the older birds who sing best, their voices having mellowed with time, or does a special gene make certain wood thrushes exceptional? Of course, the tones most soothing to my ears may grate the nerves of other wood thrushes, and the singers I pass up may be the envy of their clan.

A widespread species, the wood thrush can be heard from a suburban yard if there is a woodlot nearby, but I seek better acoustics. To fully appreciate the forest’s supreme melody, go to the forest, where traffic noise, mowers, hammering and human voices barely penetrate. In the wood thrush’s preferred concert hall of moist woods, every leaf seems to serve as his sound reflector, imparting bell-like reverberations to his clear, round notes.

Although he sings early in the morning and periodically throughout the day, my favorite time to escape the droning suburb and receive the wood thrush’s soothing strains is when the warm light of a summer day fades. As other birds are piping their last notes, the voice of the wood thrush suddenly rises. Soon his song rules, and the woods, though not really silent, seem so except for this bird, because his sonorous voice commands attention.

For singing wood thrushes, summer ends early. Although they remain in my part of New England through September, by mid-August most of them have fallen silent. Perhaps the most stirring wood thrush I ever heard was singing late in the season. It was a warm day but it hinted of fall, and I felt summer slipping away.

An orange haze filtered through the trees from where the wood thrush sang. To gaze on this pleasant light, to be bathed in it, to see the large trees reaching high into the air, their leaves hanging motionless, and to hear his ageless song rising above it all—this put me in a state of almost hypnotic serenity. I never saw this wood thrush. I wonder what he was feeling as he sang his rhapsody in blue. I can only imagine that he was bidding the summer farewell and voicing a message of hope for summers to come.

Robert Winkler frequently writes about the birds that live near his Connecticut home.

 

Conservation Concern

Thrush Declines

Fewer people are lucky enough to hear the soulful song of the wood thrush these days, in part because the bird is becoming scarce. Since the mid-1960s, the species’ numbers have dropped 43 percent across its range.

Other thrushes are in trouble, too. The veery, for instance, has declined 30 percent over the past four decades. Overall, every forest thrush but one—the hermit thrush—is in trouble in at least part of its range. There’s no single smoking gun to account for these declines. Cornell Lab of Ornithology biologist Stefan Hames, however, notes that habitat loss and degradation are occurring throughout the regions these migratory birds spend both winter and summer, as well as in stopover points between them.

Two years ago, Hames and his colleagues discovered a more specific potential culprit behind wood thrush declines. Using data collected by thousands of volunteers, they found that the species is less likely to breed in areas that receive high amounts of acid rain. The scientists suggest that acid’s tendency to deplete soil calcium may harm the bird’s prey, which includes earthworms, millipedes, pillbugs and snails. Next, they will look into another possible offender: “In addition to acidifying precipitation,” says Hames, “coal-fired power plants put out a lot of mercury.” For more information, see www.birds.cornell.edu—Laura Tangley

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