Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Language of the Birds: A Musical Interlude

The North American Wood Thrush.

"The last of the light of the sun
That had died in the west
Still lived for one song more
In a thrush's breast.

Far in the pillared dark
Thrush music went --
Almost like a call to come in
To the dark and lament."

- From "Come In" by poet, Robert Frost.

"Whenever a man hears it he is young, and Nature is in her spring; wherever he hears it, it is a new world and a free country, and the gates of Heaven are not shut against him."

- Naturalist Henry David Thoreau, regarding the song of the wood thrush (from the Wiki entry).*


Out here in the west, at least, where I currently reside, there are no wood thrushes... and I miss them. In late spring and early summer, they'd begin singing around twilight in the forest behind my childhood home, and the sound was both haunting and inviting... as in Frost's poem (above).

The thrush's song is also a good antidote for "writer's block". And, I'm afraid, writer's block is a symptom of whatever virus or bug I've been battling for the past few weeks.

And, so, despite having several posts in various stages of completion, I'm taking a break from blogging for a short while. Not really long. Just long enough to go outdoors and remind myself that a.) it's spring, and, b.) I actually live on a planet.

Then again, if you must know, a small, nesting sparrow outside my kitchen window advised me. While a sparrow's song can't hold a candle to the thrush's - it's too repetitious...(although no worse than pop music!) - it still knows how to get its point across. And the sparrow's point was: "Get away from that computer keyboard... now!"

Of course, there are those who would debate whether or not birdsong is even musical... scientists mostly. For instance, you'll note in the quote below that, although scientists have detected certain harmonics in the hermit thrush's song which match human patterns, they are still not convinced that birds "have music"... which is quite the opposite of my own views (see my earlier Language of the Birds post), but, then, no one ever accused scientists of having imaginations! ;-)


"Once described as the finest sound in nature, the song of the North American hermit thrush has long captivated the human ear. For centuries, birdwatchers have compared it to human music – and it turns out they were on to something. The bird’s song is beautifully described by the same maths that underlies human harmonies.

... The study shows a natural bias in the thrush towards certain harmonies, similar to those found in humans and some other birds, says Martin Braun of the Swedish organisation Neuroscience of Music in Karlstad, who says the study is an important contribution to the field.

Others remain cautious. Dale Purves of Duke University in North Carolina points out that it concerns just one species, and one component of music – pitch. “What does it all mean? That’s unclear,” he says. The study may explain why the hermit thrush song sounds melodious to our ear, but the debate over whether or not animals have music, and whether theirs is similar to ours, remains very much open."

- Excerpt from a 2014 New Scientist article.**

Well, I'll let you be the judge, but, yes, it sounds like music to me! But, then again, scientists make a living by having such "debates".

On the other hand, I defy them to listen to the Russian canary (below), without becoming at least a tad persuaded. While it's true that the little birds are trained, the point is... well, many human musicians are trained. The important thing is that the birds have the aptitude... and this tiny creature is positively orchestral!

I actually hesitated before posting the above video... I detest the practice of caging birds. But, this amazing bird was actually performing in front of a small crowd - dig on that, if you will - so I caved. Besides which, now that I think of it, isn't chaining oneself to a computer for hours on end kind of like being trapped in a cage?

And, on that note, um... see ya later! :-)

* Interestingly, also from the Wiki entry: "The male (wood thrush) is able to sing two notes at once, which gives its song an ethereal, flute-like quality."

But, naturally, if one scrolls down in the article, we find the creature, like so many animals, is becoming endangered:

"The wood thrush has become a symbol of the decline of Neotropical songbirds of eastern North America, having declined by approximately 50% since 1966. Along with many other species, this thrush faces threats both to its North American breeding grounds and Central American wintering grounds. Forest fragmentation in North American forests has resulted in both increased nest predation and increased cowbird parasitism, significantly reducing their reproductive success."

This reminds me too much of a similar sad story... that of the starlings in my article about the starling's amazing murmurations.

** For another link to a similar article, and more about the wood thrush, see this past post.


  1. Ask not why the caged blogger sings? :)

    1. Well, I don't know about you, sweets, but I'm *always* asking... ;-)

  2. That canary is amazing! It's like a whole tiny orchestra.

    1. Yes, it's quite a talented little bird. But then, it's Russian. We tend to know a few things when it comes to poetry and music! :-)

  3. Ah...a Russian canary in Kuwait. Now there's a story in that somewhere... I'm surprised it didn't begin with an intro like "I just flew in from Leningrad and boy, are my wings tired!"

    We have a white throated sparrow hanging about and while its song cannot compare musically to the canary, it's quite melodic.

    And YES! Listen to the bird -- go OUTSIDE and take in some of that gorgeous NM scenery. Life is more than what's in the cage, eh?

    1. :-)
      Well, the odd thing is, I had this mysterious little tune going through my head the other day... but, I couldn't place it... turns out, it was the Russian canary's song from the video!

      The white-throated sparrow's song *is* melodic. Listening to it, I could swear I've heard it used before in a human musical composition of some sort.

      Can't say I've spent much time in the great outdoors... but, I'm feeling better, getting things done... and the "block" is dissolving. (knock on wood!) ;-)