Web and Book design image,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio              

Return to Web Text-ures)
Click here to return to
Content Page



THE charm of the songs of birds, like that of a nation's popular airs and hymns, is so little a question of intrinsic musical excellence, and so largely a matter of association and suggestion, or of subjective coloring and reminiscence, that it is perhaps entirely natural for every people to think their own feathered songsters the best. What music would there not be to the homesick American, in Europe, in the simple and plaintive note of our bluebird, or the ditty of our song sparrow, or the honest carol of our robin; and what, to the European traveler in this country, in the burst of the blackcap, or the redbreast, or the whistle of the merlin! The relative merit of bird-songs can hardly be settled dogmatically; I suspect there is very little of what we call music, or of what could be noted on the musical scale, in even the best of them; they are parts of nature, and their power is in the degree in which they speak to our experience.

When the Duke of Argyll, who is a lover of the birds and a good ornithologist, was in this country, he got the impression that our song-birds were inferior to the British, and he refers to others of his countrymen as of like opinion. No wonder he thought our robin inferior in power to the missel thrush, in variety to the mavis, and in melody to the blackbird!  Robin did not and could not sing to his ears the song he sings to ours. Then it is very likely true that his grace did not hear the robin in the most opportune moment and season, or when the contrast of his song with the general silence and desolation of nature is the most striking and impressive. The nightingale needs to be heard at night, the lark at dawn rising to meet the sun; and robin, if you would know the magic of his voice, should be heard in early spring, when, as the sun is setting, he carols steadily for ten or fifteen  minutes from the top of some near tree. There is perhaps no other sound in nature; patches of snow linger here and there; the trees are naked and the earth is cold and dead, and this contented, hopeful,  reassuring,  and  withal  musical  strain, poured out so freely and deliberately, fills the void with the very breath and presence of the spring. It is a simple strain, well suited to the early season; there are no intricacies in it, but its honest cheer and directness, with its slight plaintive tinge, like that of the sun gilding the treetops, go straight to the heart. The compass and variety of the robin's powers are not to be despised either. A German who has great skill in the musical education of birds told me what I was surprised to hear, namely, that our robin surpasses the European blackbird in capabilities of voice.

The duke does not mention by name all the birds he heard while in this country.  He was evidently influenced in his opinion of them by the fact that our common sandpiper appeared to be a silent bird, whereas its British cousin, the sandpiper of the lakes and streams of the Scottish Highlands, is very loquacious, and the "male bird has a continuous and most lively song."  Either the duke must have seen our bird in one of its silent and meditative moods, or else, in the wilds of Canada where his grace speaks of having seen it, the sandpiper is a more taciturn bird than it is in the States. True, its call-notes are not incessant, and it is not properly a song-bird any more than the British species is; but it has a very pretty and pleasing note as it flits up and down our summer streams, or runs along on their gray, pebbly, and boulder-strewn shallows.  I often hear its calling and piping at night during its spring migratings. Indeed, we have no silent bird that I am aware of, though our pretty cedar-bird has, perhaps, the least voice of any. A lady writes me that she has heard the hummingbird sing, and says she is not to be put down, even if I were to prove by the anatomy of the bird's vocal organs that a song was impossible to it. Argyll says that, though he was in the woods and fields of Canada and of the States in the richest moment of the spring, he heard little of that burst of song which in England comes from the blackcap, and the garden warbler, and the whitethroat, and the reed  warbler,  and the common wren, and (locally) from the nightingale. There is no lack of a burst of song in this country (except in the remote forest solitudes) during the richest moment of the spring, say from the 1st to the 20th of May, and at times till near midsummer; moreover, more bird-voices join in it, as I shall point out, than in Britain; but it is probably more fitful and intermittent, more confined to certain hours of the day, and probably proceeds from throats less loud and vivacious than that with which our distinguished critic was familiar.  The ear hears best and easiest what it has heard before. Properly to apprehend and appreciate bird-songs, especially to disentangle them from the confused murmur of nature, requires more or less familiarity with them. If the duke had passed a season with us in some one place in the country, in New York or New England, he would probably have modified his views about the silence of our birds.

One season, early in May, I discovered an English skylark in full song above a broad, low meadow in the midst of a landscape that possessed features attractive to a great variety of our birds. Every morning for many days I used to go and sit on the brow of a low hill that commanded the field, or else upon a gentle swell in the midst of the meadow itself, and listen to catch the song of the lark. The maze and tangle of bird voices and bird choruses through which my ear groped its way searching for the new song can be imagined when I say that  within  hearing there were from fifteen to twenty different kinds of songsters, all more or less in full tune. If their notes and calls could have been materialized and made as palpable to the eye as they were to the ear, I think they would have veiled the landscape and darkened the day. There were big songs and little songs, — songs from the trees, the bushes, the ground, the air, — warbles, trills, chants, musical calls, and squeals, etc.  Near by in the foreground were the catbird and the brown thrasher, the former in the bushes, the latter on the top of a hickory. These birds are related to the mockingbird, and may be called performers; their songs are a series of vocal feats, like the exhibition of an acrobat; they throw musical somersaults, and turn and twist and contort themselves in a very edifying manner, with now and then a ventriloquial touch. The catbird is the more shrill, supple, and feminine; the thrasher the louder, richer, and more audacious. The mate of the latter had a nest, which I found in a field under the spreading ground-juniper. From several points along the course of a bushy little creek there came a song, or a melody of notes and calls, that also put me out, — the tipsy, hodge-podge strain of the polyglot chat, a strong, olive-backed, yellow-breasted, black-billed bird, with a voice like that of a jay or a crow that had been to school to a robin or an oriole, — a performer sure to arrest your ear and sure to elude your eye. There is no bird so afraid of being seen, or fonder of being heard.

The golden voice of the wood thrush that came to me from the border of the woods on my right was no hindrance to the ear, it was so serene, liquid, and, as it were, transparent: the lark's song has nothing in common with it. Neither were the songs of the many bobolinks in the meadow at all confusing, — a brief tinkle of silver bells in the grass, while I was listening for a sound more like the sharp and continuous hum of silver wheels upon a pebbly beach. Certain notes of the red-shouldered starlings in the alders and swamp maples near by, the distant barbaric voice of the great crested flycatcher, the jingle of the kingbird, the shrill, metallic song of the savanna sparrow, and the piercing call of the meadowlark, all stood more or less in the way of the strain I was listening for, because every one had a touch of that burr or guttural hum of the lark's song. The ear had still other notes to contend with, as the strong, bright warble of the tanager, the richer and more melodious strain of the rose-breasted grosbeak, the distant, brief, and emphatic song of the chewink, the child-like contented warble of the red-eyed vireo, the animated strain of the goldfinch, the softly ringing notes of the bush sparrow, the rapid, circling, vivacious strain of the purple finch, the gentle lullaby of the song sparrow, the pleasing "witchery," "witchery" of the yellow-throat, the clear whistle of the oriole, the loud call of the high-hole, the squeak and chatter of swallows, etc. But when the lark did rise in full song, it was easy to hear him athwart all these various sounds, first, because of the sense of altitude his strain had, — its skyward character, — and then because of its loud, aspirated, penetrating, unceasing, jubilant quality. It cut its way to the ear like something exceeding swift, sharp, and copious. It overtook and outran every other sound; it had an undertone like the humming of multitudinous wheels and spindles. Now and then some turn would start and set off a new combination of shriller or of graver notes, but all of the same precipitate, out-rushing and down-pouring character; not, on the whole, a sweet or melodious song, but a strong and blithe one.

Yellow Breasted Chat

The duke is abundantly justified in saying that we have no bird in this country, at least east of the Mississippi, that can fill the place of the skylark. Our high, wide, bright skies seem his proper field, too. His song is a pure ecstasy, untouched by any plaintiveness, or pride, or mere hilarity, — a wellspring of morning joy and blitheness set high above the fields and downs. Its effect is well suggested in this stanza of Wordsworth:

"Up with me! up with me into the clouds!
     For thy song, Lark, is strong;
  Up with me, up with me into the clouds!
           Singing, singing,
  With clouds and sky about thee ringing,
     Lift me, guide me till I find
  That spot which seems so to thy mind!"

But judging from Gilbert White's and Barrington's lists, I should say that our bird-choir was a larger one, and embraced more good songsters, than the British.

White names twenty-two species of birds that sing in England during the spring and summer, including the swallow in the list.  A list of the spring and summer songsters in New York and New England, without naming any that are characteristically wood-birds, like the hermit thrush and veery, the two wagtails, the thirty or more warblers, and the solitary vireo, or including any of the birds that have musical call-notes, and by some are denominated songsters, as the bluebird, the sandpiper, the swallow, the red-shouldered starling, the pewee, the high-hole, and others, would embrace more names, though perhaps no songsters equal to the lark and nightingale, to wit:  the robin, the catbird, the Baltimore oriole, the orchard oriole, the song sparrow, the wood sparrow, the vesper sparrow, the social sparrow, the swamp sparrow, the purple finch, the wood thrush, the scarlet tanager, the indigo-bird, the goldfinch, the bobolink, the summer yellowbird, the meadowlark, the house wren, the marsh wren, the brown thrasher, the chewink, the chat, the red-eyed vireo, the white-eyed vireo, the Maryland yellow-throat, and the rose-breasted grosbeak.

The British sparrows are for the most part song-less.  What a ditty is that of our song sparrow, rising from the garden fence or the roadside so early in March, so prophetic and touching, with endless variations and pretty trilling effects; or the song of the vesper sparrow, full of the repose and the wild sweetness of the fields; or the strain of the little bush sparrow, suddenly projected upon the silence of the fields or of the evening twilight, and delighting the ear as a beautiful scroll delights the eye! The white-crowned, the white-throated, and the Canada sparrows sing transiently spring and fall;  and I have heard the fox sparrow in April, when his song haunted my heart like some bright, sad, delicious memory of youth, — the richest and most moving of all sparrow-songs.

Our wren-music, too, is superior to anything of the kind in the Old World, because we have a greater variety of wren-songsters.  Our house wren is inferior to the British house wren, but our marsh wren has a lively song; while our winter wren, in sprightliness, mellowness, plaintiveness, and execution, is surpassed by but few songsters in the world. The summer haunts of this wren are our high, cool, northern woods, where, for the most part, his music is lost on the primeval solitude.

The British flycatcher, according to White, is a silent bird, while our species, as the phœbe-bird, the wood pewee, the kingbird, the little green flycatcher, and others, all have notes more or less lively and musical.  The great crested flycatcher has a harsh voice, but the pathetic and silvery note of the wood pewee more than makes up for it. White says the golden-crowned wren is not a songbird in Great Britain.  The corresponding species here has a pleasing though not remarkable song, which is seldom heard, however, except in its breeding haunts in the north. But its congener, the ruby-crowned kinglet, has a rich, delicious, and prolonged warble, which is noticeable in the Northern States for a week or two in April or May, while the bird pauses to feed on its way to its summer home.

There are no vireos in Europe, nor birds that answer to them. With us, they contribute an important element to the music of our groves and woods. There are few birds I should miss more than the red-eyed vireo, with his cheerful musical soliloquy, all day and all summer, in the maples and locusts. It is he, or rather she, that builds the exquisite basket nest on the ends of the low, leafy branches, suspending it between two twigs. The warbling vireo has a stronger, louder strain, more continuous, but not quite so sweet. The solitary vireo is heard only in the deep woods, while the white-eyed is still more local or restricted in its range, being found only in wet, bushy places, whence its vehement, varied, and brilliant song is sure to catch the dullest ear.

The goldfinches of the two countries, though differing  in plumage, are perhaps pretty evenly matched in song; while our purple finch, or linnet, I am persuaded, ranks far above the English linnet, or lintie, as the Scotch call it. In compass, in melody, in sprightliness, it is a remarkable songster. Indeed, take the finches as a family, they certainly furnish more good songsters in this country than in Great Britain. They furnish the staple of our bird-melody, including in the family the tanager and the grosbeaks, while in Europe the warblers lead. White names seven finches in his list, and Barrington includes eight, none of them very noted songsters, except the linnet. Our list would include the sparrows above named, and the indigo-bird, the goldfinch, the purple finch, the scarlet tanager, the rose-breasted grosbeak, the blue grosbeak, and the cardinal bird.  Of these birds, all except the fox sparrow and the blue grosbeak are familiar summer songsters throughout the Middle and Eastern States. The indigo-bird is a midsummer and an all-summer songster of great brilliancy. So is the tanager. I judge there is no European thrush that, in the pure charm of melody and hymn-like serenity and spirituality, equals our wood and hermit thrushes, as there is no bird there that, in simple lingual excellence, approaches our bobolink.

The European cuckoo makes more music than ours, and their robin redbreast is a better singer than the allied species, to wit, the bluebird, with us.  But it is mainly in the larks and warblers that the European birds are richer in songsters than are ours.  We have an army of small wood-warblers, — no less than forty species, — but most of them have faint chattering or lisping songs that escape all but the most attentive ear, and then they spend the summer far to the north. Our two wagtails are our most brilliant warblers, if we except the kinglets, which are Northern birds in summer, and the Kentucky warbler, which is a Southern bird; but they probably do not match the English blackcap, or whitethroat, or garden warbler, to say nothing of the nightingale, though Audubon thought our large-billed water-thrush, or wagtail, equaled that famous bird. It is certainly a brilliant songster, but most provokingly brief; the ear is arrested by a sudden joyous burst of melody proceeding from the dim aisles along which some wild brook has its way, but just as you say "Listen!" it ceases.  I hear and see the bird every season along a rocky stream that flows through a deep chasm amid a wood of hemlock and pine. As I sit at the foot of some cascade, or on the brink of some little dark eddying pool above it, this bird darts by me, up or down the stream, or alights near me, upon a rock or stone at the edge of the water.  Its speckled breast, its dark olive-colored back, its teetering, mincing gait, like that of a sandpiper, and its sharp chit, like the click of two pebbles under water, are characteristic features. Then its quick, ringing song, which you are sure presently to hear, suggests something so bright and silvery that it seems almost to light up, for a brief moment, the dim retreat. If this strain were only sustained and prolonged like the nightingale's, there would be good grounds for Audubon's comparison. Its cousin, the wood wagtail, or golden-crowned thrush of the older ornithologists, and golden-crowned accentor of the later, — a common bird in all our woods, — has a similar strain, which it delivers as it were surreptitiously, and in the most precipitate manner, while on the wing, high above the treetops. It is a kind of wood-lark, practicing and rehearsing on the sly. When the modest songster is ready to come out and give all a, chance to hear his full and completed strain, the European wood-lark will need to look to his laurels.  These two birds are our best warblers, and yet they are probably seldom heard, except by persons who know and admire them.  If the two kinglets could also be included in our common New England summer residents, our warbler music would only pale before the song of Philomela herself. The English redstart evidently surpasses ours as a songster, and we have no bird to match the English wood-lark above referred to, which is said to be but little inferior to the skylark; but, on the other hand, besides the sparrows and vireos, already mentioned, they have no songsters to match our oriole, our orchard starling, our catbird, our brown thrasher (second only to the mockingbird), our chewink, our snowbird, our cow-bunting, our bobolink, and our yellow-breasted chat. As regards the swallows of the two countries, the advantage is rather on the side of the American. Our chimney swallow, with his incessant, silvery, rattling chipper, evidently makes more music than the corresponding house swallow of Europe; while our purple martin is not represented in the Old World avifauna at all. And yet it is probably true that a dweller in England hears more bird-music throughout the year than a dweller in this country, and that which, in some respects, is of a superior order.

In the first place, there is not so much of it lost "upon the desert air," upon the wild, unlistening solitudes.  The English birds are more domestic and familiar than ours; more directly and intimately associated with man; not, as a class, so withdrawn and lost in the great void of the wild and the unreclaimed. England is like a continent concentrated, — all the waste land, the barren stretches, the wildernesses, left out. The birds are brought near together and near to man. Wood-birds here are house and garden birds there. They find good pasturage and protection everywhere. A land of parks, and gardens, and hedge-rows, and game preserves, and a climate free from violent extremes, — what a stage for the birds, and for enhancing the effect of their songs! How prolific they are, how abundant! If our songsters were hunted and trapped by bird-fanciers and others, as the lark, and goldfinch, and mavis, etc., are in England, the race would soon become extinct. Then, as a rule, it is probably true that the British birds as a class have more voice than ours have, or certain qualities that make their songs more striking and conspicuous, such as greater vivacity and strength. They are less bright in plumage, but more animated in voice. They are not so recently out of the woods, and their strains have not that elusiveness and plaintiveness that ours have. They sing with more confidence and copiousness, and as if they, too, had been touched by civilization.

Then they sing more hours in the day, and more days in the year.  This is owing to the milder and more equable climate.  I heard the skylark singing above the South Downs in October, apparently with full spring fervor and delight. The wren, the robin, and the wood-lark sing throughout the winter, and in midsummer there are perhaps more vocal throats than here. The heat and blaze of our midsummer sun silence most of our birds.

There are but four songsters that I hear with any regularity after the meridian of summer is past, namely, the indigo-bird, the wood or bush sparrow, the scarlet tanager, and the red-eyed vireo, while White names eight or nine August songsters, though he speaks of the yellow-hammer only as persistent. His dictum, that birds sing as long as nidification goes on, is as true here as in England. Hence our wood thrush will continue in song over into August if, as frequently happens, its June nest has been broken up by the crows or squirrels.

The British songsters are more vocal at night than ours. White says the grasshopper lark chirps all night in the height of summer. The sedge-bird also sings the greater part of the night. A stone thrown into the bushes where it is roosting, after it has become silent, will set it going again. Other British birds, besides the nightingale, sing more or less at night.

In this country the mockingbird is the only regular night-singer we have.  Other songsters break out occasionally in the middle of the night, but so briefly that it gives one the impression that they sing in their sleep. Thus I have heard the hair-bird, or chippie, the kingbird, the oven-bird, and the cuckoo fitfully in the dead of night, like a schoolboy laughing in his dreams.

On the other hand, there are certain aspects in which our songsters appear to advantage. That they surpass the European species in sweetness, tenderness, and melody I have no doubt; and that our mockingbird, in his native haunts in the South, surpasses any bird in the world in fluency, variety, and execution is highly probable. That the total effect of his strain may be less winning and persuasive than the nocturne of the nightingale is the only question in my mind about the relative merits of the two songsters. Bring our birds together as they are brought together in England, let all our shy wood-birds — like the hermit thrush, the veery, the winter wren, the wood wagtail, the water wagtail, the many warblers, the several vireos — become birds of the groves and orchards, and there would be a burst of song indeed.

Bates, the naturalist of the Amazon, speaks of a little thrush he used to hear in his rambles that showed the American quality to which I have referred. "It is a much smaller and plainer-colored bird," he says, "than our [the English] thrush, and its song is not so loud, varied, or so long sustained; here the tone is of a sweet and plaintive quality, which harmonizes well with the wild and silent woodlands, where alone it is heard in the mornings and evenings of sultry, tropical days."

I append parallel lists of the better known American and English song-birds, marking in each with an asterisk, those that are probably the better songsters; followed by a list of other American songsters, some of which are not represented in the British avifauna: —

        Old England.
* Wood-lark.
* Jenny Wren.
   Willow wren.
* Redbreast.
* Redstart.
* Skylark.
* Blackcap.
* Blackbird.
* Chaffinch.
* Nightingale.
   Missel thrush.
   Great titmouse.
          New England.
* Wood thrush.
  House wren.
* Winter wren.
* Song sparrow.
* Fox sparrow.
  Wood wagtail.
  Titlark (spring and fall).
* Maryland yellow-throat.
* Wood sparrow.
* Vesper sparrow.
* Purple finch
  Water wagtail
* Hermit Thrush.
  Savanna sparrow.
New England song-birds not included in the above are:—
   Red-eyed vireo.
   White-eyed vireo.
   Brotherly love vireo.
   Solitary vireo.
   Yellow-throated vireo.
   Scarlet tanager.
   Baltimore oriole.
  Orchard Oriole.
  Brown thrasher.
  Rose-brested grosbeak.
  Purple martin.
 Mockingbird (occasionally).

      Besides these, a dozen or more species of the Mniotiltidæ, or wood-warblers, might be named, some of which, like the black-throated green warbler, the speckled Canada warbler, the hooded warbler, the mourning ground-warbler, and the yellow warbler, are fine songsters.

Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.