Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
WOODLAND SINGERS — THE THRUSHES, VIREO, AND PEABODY BIRD.
THE plain-coated thrushes are our greatest singers. Whoever has not heard them at the sunset hour, while wheeling along the road in late spring or early summer, has yet to hear the sweetest songs of the sky.
Wilson says little or nothing about the music of two or three Singularly gifted members of the Thrush family, and it is particularly to these that I wish to draw attention. The Turdidæ is a large family; in one subdivision alone (the Turdinœ) there are quite one hundred and fifty species. One of the most familiar birds belonging to this division is the robin (Merula migratoria), who is quite a different bird from his thrush cousins, how greatly different we readily see upon making a general comparison. He is not a woodland bird.
The robin’s voice is pitched low, those of all the thrushes are pitched high. The robin delights in the close-clipped lawn, the thrush prefers the forest tree; he rarely comes within a hundred yards of a house, but the robin often socially greets us quite near the piazza steps. The true thrush is a woodland bird; the robin delights in the open country, and he is companionable, but the thrush is timid and retiring, and his plumage is colored so nearly like the gray limbs of the tree, or the dead leaves below them where he is always flitting, that we can scarcely see him twenty feet away. But on the green lawn the rusty breast and the slate-black crest of the robin are prominent bits of color which are visible far away.
The robin’s warble is so very well known to us that it seems unnecessary to take any note of it here; but for the sake of a little interesting comparison with other bird music, I give two bits of his cheery song which I think will sound familiar:
His notes are generally delivered staccato and in couplets or triplets, but frequently he gives us a few with caressing modulations, and still others slurred, thus:
Compare this with the music of the hermit thrush further on, and it will be seen what a great difference there is in the construction of the two songs. The hermit thrush gives us no warbling note, but distinct silvery whistles in rapid triplets. It would be impossible, too, for the robin to sustain a long high note, and then “go to pieces” in silvery fragments on the next higher one, just as the hermit does. No; robin rarely ventures beyond his low-pitch, agitated couplets and triplets, but these he delivers with consummate skill.
The robin’s nest is a rude, mud-plastered affair saddled on a low bough or set upon a secluded bit of ground; in it one may see from four to six most beautiful “robin’s-egg blue” eggs. I use the popular color term because it is the only one which is unique, and is fittingly given. The color is a sober, delicate, yet pronounced green-blue, the like of which is not easily found elsewhere in Nature.
How much the young robin can eat is a subject for an essay; in fact, it is one which for many years past ornithologists have delighted in. But I will only repeat one marvelous and truthful account of the bird’s feeding propensity. Prof. Treadwell says that from fifty to one hundred robins will eat a million worms and caterpillars in a season, and that a young one will eat in twelve hours a hundred and forty per cent of its own weight, and devour fourteen feet of earthworms! Now, if this wonderful eater would only concentrate his powers on the dreadful gypsy moth, what a blessing it would be to our elm trees! But robin eats other things as well, among which are barberries, berries of the Phytolacca decandra, those of the poison ivy, wild black cherries, and black alder berries. He also relishes cutworms, a fact which I recently discovered to my infinite satisfaction. The interesting way the robin carries himself on the lawn must be noticeable to the most casual observer. He stands erect and motionless for two seconds or so, then darts forward at a rapid run, and pounces upon a bit of turf in which he plunges his bill in an agitated kind of a way; up he bobs again serenely with, maybe, a fat angleworm hanging out of his mouth, then da capo! If we disturb him he utters a “quirp-yip-yip-yip-yap” and flies to a neighboring tree.
A not very distant relative of the robin, but a woodland singer nearer related to the catbird, is the brown thrush or thrasher (Harporhyncus rufus). He is nearly if not quite twelve inches long (sometimes longer), is light reddish brown above and dull white beneath, and his breast is streaky spotted with brown; on the wings beneath the shoulders are two white bars. The bird is a splendid singer, although his wild and irregular notes are by no means as silvery and sweet as those of his thrush cousins. He appears early in the spring, and there are those who interpret his snatchy bits of song as advice to the farmer to “plow it” or “hoe it.” But it must not be supposed that his song is always so fragmentary. I listened not long since to a brown thrush, and he continued his song without intermission for ten seconds — a good long time for a bird to sing. The quality of his note is not unlike that of the robin, but he does not warble like the robin, nor does he whistle with flutelike clearness like the wood thrush; his music is his own, and is quite as spasmodic and unconventional as it could well be.
The brown thrush frequents the thickets and copses not far from the road, and in these the rude nests are built at no great distance from the ground. There are usually five bluish eggs spotted plentifully with brown. I have found the brown thrush to be a frequent visitor of the highways which pass through the southern valleys of the White Mountains.
Where the road enters the wild wood, just under some frowning hill, there we may most likely hear, and possibly we may be fortunate enough to see, one of the greatest songsters of our country, if not the greatest woodland singer in the world. I refer to the hermit thrush, whose song once heard can never be forgotten. It is a song which we will hear from over the treetops, if the air is still at sunset, a whole mile away.
But I must first speak of the hermit’s better-known relative. The wood thrush (Turdus mustelinus) is rather a plain, tawny brown bird with a prominent white breast, strikingly spotted with pointed umber-brown spots, a broad, flat head, prominent eyes, and a somewhat long bill. The brown is deepest on the head and assumes an olive tone toward the wings and tail. The bill is black-brown and the feet yellow brown. The characteristic, strongly spotted breast of this bird is sufficient for its identification. The other thrushes are not nearly so well-marked, and it is well to bear in mind the differences which I shall point out in their breast coloring. There are four species which we ought to know apart: the wood, the hermit, Wilson’s and Swainson’s thrush.
The Wood Thrush.
The wood thrush is the largest as well as the best-marked bird of the four; as for his music, in my own private opinion it is inferior to that of the hermit thrush. But I dislike to make a descending comparison, I ought rather to say that the hermit’s song is a perfected form of the wood thrush’s song. Although the wood thrush delivers every note with the utmost precision of pitch (a thing which birds usually do not do), his tones are softer and less crystal-clear than those of the hermit. The latter also frequently indulges in a brilliant “cadenza”1 (if I may be allowed the use of the term), something which is never present in the wood thrush’s song. Further on I have illustrated the nature of the cadenza, upon which we may wisely depend for the identification of the hermit’s song.
The wood thrush sings as late as the first of July,2 morning and evening. He is not particular about sticking to triplets; often he indulges in groups of two and five notes of almost equal value. Here are some of his (to me at least) most familiar strains:
One part of a strain which Mr. Cheney has recorded is very familiar:
His range is apparently not so great as that of the hermit, but he has no limitation as to key. I believe I have recorded as many as four, which I was sure came from one bird’s little throat. The best of these two thrushs’ songs is this: they can be perfectly represented by musical signs, as every note is distinctly whistled. But we must not forget this — the whistle has no equal in all the earth, for it is born of heaven!
The wood thrush lays her eggs (perhaps four or five, as blue as a robin’s but smaller) in a rough nest built of grass, leaves, and mud, in a low tree or in the bushes near the ground.
A greater, at least a more brilliant, singer of our Northern woods, but one, however, who does not object occasionally to singing in a tree beside the highway near the pasture bars, is the hermit thrush (Turdus Aonalaschkæ Pallasii). This plainly attired little creature is about two thirds as large as the wood thrush. His back is an olive-brown which grows slightly ruddy toward the tail; his breast is dull white spotted with pointed spots of umber-brown, not as prominent nor as large as those of the wood thrush; immediately under the bill the throat is not spotted. His head is also broad and the eyes are prominent. The tail of the female bird is most likely to be a rufous brown. She lays three or four green-blue eggs, rarely if ever spotted, in a rude nest usually hidden under the bushes and grass on the ground. In the South the hermit thrush lives the year around, and is most frequently seen in the desolate cane swamps, flitting in the dim light which is characteristic of these regions. In the North the home of the hermit is among the mountain woods; he is always heard in early summer in the vicinity of Mounts Lafayette and Kinsman, N. H., singing along with Swainson’s thrush in the half-lit spruce woods late in the day. Indeed, the hermit thrush seems to prefer a dim if not a “religious” light, which may in a measure account for the hymnlike quality of its singing, which Mr. Burroughs refers to in Wake, Robin.
But I shall endeavor to give a more tangible account of this bird’s extraordinary voice. His notes are silvery, flute whistles, generally delivered in triplets. His range is quite an octave or more, and frequently he rises from a particular note to the octave higher, with surprising precision and all the éclat of an accomplished musician. I am not alone in my observation of these facts, as Mr. Cheney describes the hermit’s song thus: “After striking his first low, long, and firm note, he bounds upward by thirds, fourths, and fifths, and sometimes a whole octave, gurgling out his triplets with every upward movement” — which is exactly true. How remarkably pronounced these thirds and fifths are may be seen by the following:
(This passage is usually succeeded by that marked “cadenza.”) But this is not all the hermit can do; his gymnastic exercises in the high treble are astonishing. All at once he starts with a deliberate, prolonged high note, springs suddenly to the next whole note higher, and then falls in scintillant music a full octave, thus:
a regular tumble-down-dick cadenza, which always reminds me of this passage near the close of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata:
and which, by the way, is exactly repeated in Chopin’s Impromptu Fantasia. A more perfect bit of bird music (except its wide range) it would be difficult to imagine.
The third songster, whose music can not possibly be confused with that of either of the two thrushes I have described, is Wilson’s thrush, or the tawny thrush, sometimes called veery (Turdus fuscescens). This bird is a trifle larger than the hermit, and has quite a tawny buff-brown color, the tone of which is red, not at all like that of the wood thrush. There are extremely few small spots on the breast, and these begin well below the eye and extend only over the frontlet or chest; beneath, the color is dull whitish buff-gray.
The tawny thrush lays from three to five blue-green eggs in a rude nest which she builds in a low bush or on the ground; rarely the nest may be found in a low tree.
Mr. Minot says of this bird that it is rare in northern New England, but its song is a familiar one to me throughout the Pemigewasset Valley, N. H., and even as far North as Franconia. The bird is easily identified both by its color and its song. A marked characteristic of this species is a total absence of the darker color which is noticed in the tail, wings, and crest of the other species. Wilson’s thrush, in other words, has a pretty nearly “all over” rufous color.
One generally hears this bird singing in the gloaming, down in the lower part of the valley, generally near a brook or river. The notes are complex, somewhat resembling those of a reed or a violin; they are singularly double-toned and sweet beyond description, not at all like those of any other bird I have ever heard. When I say double-toned, I mean that the musical sound is in a certain sense harmonic3 rather than melodic.
To render this song in so many positive musical signs seems to me an impossibility. To record a number of distinct whistles is an easy matter, but Wilson’s thrush does not whistle. The notes are slurred and blended beyond the power of a musician to analyze. My rendering of the general effect would be thus:4
But sometimes there is a pianissimo fifth cluster of notes, dropping perhaps a musical third below the fourth cluster I have given.5 The first and fourth clusters are exactly alike; and to show that I am not mistaken here, I will give also the testimony of Mr. Cheney, who renders the song thus:
He also sustains my theory of the quality of the notes, as he says they are “something like the sweep of an accordion through the air.” This exactly expresses the peculiar harmonic crescendo and diminuendo of the weird notes.
There is another thrush whose song I am not quite so well acquainted with, but one which may frequently be heard singing in the lonely red spruce forests of the White Mountain region in late spring or early summer; this is called Swainson’s thrush, or the olive-backed thrush (Turdus ustulatus Swainsonii). I believe this bird sings only at nesting time; the hermit thrush sings all summer. But in June I have often heard both birds singing at the same time. Nothing is more subtile and charming to one’s sense of musical harmony than this exquisite, wild, silvery music of the Northern woods. It is hardly possible for one to pass over the highways at the feet of the great wooded mountains of northern New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire without hearing (at least in May or June), every one of these thrushes sing.6 I am quite sure of having heard Swainson’s thrush in the vicinity of Lake Placid, and in the Indian Pass, in the Adirondacks, as well as among the mountains of Sandwich, N. H.
Swainson’s thrush is light brown in color, tinged over the throat, breast, sides of neck and head with yellow. The general tone is not reddish like that of Wilson’s thrush, but a warm light brown with a strong olive cast on the back and wings. The nest is built on or near the ground, and the eggs are green-blue, freely speckled with madder-brown.
The song of this bird is not, it seems to me, so easily distinguished from that of the wood thrush, but it is more deliberate and less scintillant than that of the hermit. Perhaps the most familiar theme is this:
But frequently his song is made up of one long and two short notes which I can scarcely distinguish, except by their quality, from those of the wood thrush.
But before we leave the woodland road and the thrushes, I wish to call attention to another bird who incessantly warbles a few short notes among the foliage of the twilight forest in midsummer. Just where the light takes on a shimmering green color, where the forest grows silent and solemn and stately, there is always in summer time a little bird away up in the high- est branches, perpetually singing a disjointed song. This is called the red eyed vireo (Vireo olivaceus). He is about six inches long, olive-backed, slaty crowned with a dark line over the eye, and white-breasted. The hanging nest is usually built well up from the ground on a forked branch, and in it one may see from three to four pearly white, madder-brown spotted eggs.
I do not see how it is possible for one to mistake this bird’s song for any other. No other bird sings so disjointedly and continuously. I must except the yellow-throated vireo (Vireo flavifrons), however. This bird is olive-green, with a yellow throat. His song is pitched lower, and the tempo is less agitated. The best time to hear this music is in the afternoon of a warm day in July or August, immediately after a shower; then if the vireo is anywhere around he will be sure to sing. Listen, this is his refrain, in well-marked common time:
The groups of six notes are given in a querulous manner but with rollicking zest.
There is still another woodland bird — at least one which may certainly be heard singing somewhere near the top of a wooded hill, just beyond the raspberry patch which we are passing; the voice sounds miles away, but it is an unmistakably familiar and characteristic one. The white-throated sparrow — for this is the bird — is best known by the name Peabody bird (Zonotrichia albicollis). In Wilson’s estimation, this is the largest as well as the handsomest of all the sparrows. His crown is black, his back red-brown umber-streaked, and his wing feathers are light-brown edged. The throat and breast are dull white, and over the eye there are two white stripes. This sparrow nests in the trees of the woodlands, and lays four or five white eggs marked with umber-brown.
The Peabody bird’s song, which has a certain agreeable pathos, is remarkable for its high pitch, clear piccolo quality of tone, and freedom from the faintest trace of shrillness. It ought to be familiar to all of us who pass along the wooded road in early July. It usually comes from the top of some neighboring hill thus:
Frequently, however, I have heard a shorter and extremely high, soft whistle thus:7
and again the bird once in a while subsides to a more persuasive and plaintive call:
But the Peabody bird rarely sings later than July; he will be heard as late as this in the vicinity of Mount Washington, whose wooded slopes are his favorite haunts (see the frontispiece), and the following notes frequently disturb the stillness of Tuckerman’s Ravine:
The best time to hear the song is early in the morning. On the whole, this is the better time to hear all the bird songs, and who rises with the sun in late May or early June will be favored by a full orchestra, the different members of which are distinctly recognizable. Only detached bits of the chorus can be heard at sunset, and the character of the music is certainly not so joyous.____________________________
1 A cadenza is the embellished ending of a tune; it usually begins with a well-accented high note and subsides to the keynote.
2 Sometimes much later in the hills of New Hampshire.
3 The musical note of the tree toad is double-toned, and in this respect slightly resembles that of Wilson’s thrush. So, also, is that of the night hawk.
4 So difficult is it to decide upon some likeness of the veery’s music which may be produced at the piano, that I am tempted to suggest the discordant alternative of striking the first four notes of each cluster simultaneously; it is at least possible in this way to more truthfully represent the mixed quality of this thrush’s notes.
5 Not infrequently the thrush begins with the second cluster and adds one more cluster at the close of my rendering of the song.
6 I can at least promise the wood thrush’s song in central Vermont and New Hampshire.
7 The Peabody bird sings in several keys. I have heard this particular song in two keys, in one of which the four upper notes were almost beyond the range of my whistle. As I place the limit of that at the third B flat above middle C it will at once become apparent how surprisingly high this bird can sing.