Birder's Journal: Seduced by Dueling Thrushes

Robert Winkler
for National Geographic News
August 16, 2002
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 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" that vibrates on multiple frequencies. 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.

You can hear the wood thrush, a widespread species, 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's book of essays on his adventures with birds of the "suburban wilderness," from which this is adapted, will be published in 2003 by National Geographic Books.

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