The Thrush's Magical Song

June Bird Sounds: Thrushes

June 26, 2020
Wood Thrush

Wood Thrush

Cornell University

This time of year brings a special treat—the flute-like songs of thrushes. What’s amazing is that the thrush sings a musical series—and this songster can easily sing over 50 distinct songs! Learn more about the magical thrush of the forest.

With the June breeding season finally here, many of us have an opportunity to hear a bird with a unique song, the thrush—especially the hermit thrush, wood thrush and veery.

From the words of Thoreau’s Journals in 1852, “The thrush alone declares the immortal wealth and vigor that is in the forest.  Here is a bird in whose strain the story is told … whenever a man hears it, it is a new world and a free country, and the gates of heaven are not shut against him.”

The thrush’s flute-like “ee-oh-lay” is the middle phrase of a three-part song. In the third part of the song, it sounds as if it’s singing two notes at the same time—in harmony. The harmonic qualities originate from the paired valve syrinx in the bird’s throat which permits two notes to be played at once resulting in the flutelike qualities of the song. 

There are many sounds in the thrush’s song we cannot hear.

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Image: Hermit Thrush. Stubblefield Photography/Shutterstock

Charles Hartshorne in Born to Sing gives the highest rating for song quality which is repeated 2 to 3 times higher on the musical scale.

Thrush song has been called a “musical microcosm of notes sounded simultaneously and judged the highest summit in the evolution of animal music so far known to us”.

Click here to listen to the sound of the Hermit Thrush.

Click below to hear the sound of the Wood Thrush.

The wood thrush learns its song from other wood thrushes and sings several.  A male can sing over 50 distinct songs! Listeners with a sharp ear can identify individual birds by the way they repeat their variants of the middle phrase. 

With most birds, the males square off by answering a rival’s song with the same song, perhaps seeing who sings better. But the male thrush would never copycat. They almost always answer a rival’s song with a different song of their own.

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Image: Wood Thrush. Paul Reeves Photography/Shutterstock

Folks in the Eastern United States, Mountain West, and Canada are most likely to hear the songs of the thrushes. After a summer of lovely evening music, the thrush quietly departs for southern climes in the United States and Central America.

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Image: Veery on the ground. Paul Reeves Photography/Shutterstock

As Anton Chekhov said, “Whoever once in his life has seen thrushes migrate in the autumn, when on clear, cool days, they sweep in flocks over the village, will never really be a townsman and to the day of his death will have a longing for the open.”

Enjoy birding? Hear more bird sounds in our library here!

About This Blog

Tom Warren has had an interest in birds since the age of 3, when he lived across from the President of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, who showed Tom how to care for injured birds. Later, a neighboring grandmother taught him the songs of warblers and thrushes, and in the eighth grade, his Middle School biology teacher took his class on birding excursions every weekend. Tom has guided bird walks and owl prowls for conservation groups, and has also participated in annual Christmas Bird Counts and the Hawk Watch on Pack Monadnock Mountain. Throughout the years, he has spent time at Pt. Pelee in Ontario observing the spring migration and has traveled to a variety of other migration areas. Tom is also committed to protecting birds and their habitat as a Trustee for both Massachusetts and New Hampshire Audubon, and the Harris Nature Center.

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