Wednesday, May 19, 2010


It's the first song I listen for in the woods of May: the mystical filigree of the wood thrush.

Do other birds listen and think, “I wish I could sing like that”? Doubtful. For one, it would not serve any purpose if a red-eyed vireo, say, sang like a wood thrush. For another, birds only get jealous in folk tales. Nor do they trade, or harbor, compliments.

But we like to hear the wood thrush, and we’re animals. Cousins to birds on the DNA Tree. So who knows. Maybe there’s an aesthetic sense among birds, too. Not so much the art as the mechanics. Along the lines of, “That’s a well put-together song.” Or “That song’s all it can be.” Or, among rival wood thrushes, a simple recognition: “That bird's song is sylvan (i.e., resonant, euphonic, effective in the woods)."

A description of a wood thrush’s song works better if the reader’s heard the real thing. Then the words trigger the memory. And you can take the short intro: tut-tut-tut… the liquid, fluty…and the tingly little trill at the end—and set it in a cool green forest, and give it a mysterious, echoey, arabesque quality. And maybe even picture the singer (rusty and chocolate brown head to tail, black dapples on white breast) opening its bill and these complex, dreamy lyrics sailing out.

Other birds are sylvan. Many of them are thrushes. The veery has a delicate silvery swirling song, echoing downward like rainwater in an elf’s washbasin. The Swainson’s thrush goes in the other direction, swirling up. The hermit thrush looses a long ethereal note at different pitches and after each one shimmers brief cadenzas.

Adding to the ambience of the May woods is an Eastern wood-pewee, with its plaintive peee-oo-wee? pee-ooo. Also a red-eyed vireo, seldom seen, incessantly interviewing itself in short…widely…spaced…one-word…or…two-word…phrases…until…you get…tired of…scanning…the leaves...up there. And of course there’s the ovenbird, ringing out in rising volume from the forest floor, somewhere, everywhere: cher-tea, cher-tea, CHER-TEA, CHER-TEA, CHER-TEA!

But without a thrush, especially a wood thrush, the woods lacks a certain aural beauty it might have had. Sylvan.

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