Here is a bird in whose strain the story is told

I heard the first wood thrush this morning, singing in the thickets along Willie Six Rd. By the time I got my class out there, the bird was silent. Next year, I’ll reschedule this class to begin at 7am instead of 8am, for the whole darn semester. More in tune with reality, I think.

The wood thrush sings with pure notes, unadorned by harmonics, slightly offsetting the tones from the two sides of its throat. The result is gorgeous. Thoreau, as usual, had something to say about this:

“The wood thrush’s is no opera music; it is not so much the composition as the strain, the tone, — cool bars of melody from the atmospheres of everlasting morning or evening. It is the quality of the sound, not the sequence. In the peawai’s [Eastern wood-pewee] note there is some sultriness, but in the thrush’s, though heard at noon, there is the liquid coolness of things that are just drawn from the bottom of springs. 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, though Nature waited for the science of aesthetics to discover it to man. Whenever a man hears it, he is young, and Nature is in her spring. Whenever he hears it, it is a new world and a free country, and the gates of heaven are not shut against him.” (from Thoreau’s Journals, July 5th, 1852)

The gates of heaven are not closed, agreed. But they are swinging shut, quite fast. Wood thrushes are in decline, the victims of fragmented forests, air-borne mercury from our coal plants, and lost wintering habitat. I culled the following graph from the Breeding Bird Survey. It shows an index of wood thrush abundance over the last forty years. In my lifetime, the species appears to have halved its abundance.

But, given a chance, these birds can bounce back. Indeed, it is likely that in many regions they were a lot less common in Thoreau’s day (the late 19th century was a time of massive deforestation) than they are now.

If you want a taste of heaven for yourself, The Music of Nature site has some nice footage and sound. But computer speakers and pixels are wan memories of reality. In the words of another bewhiskered New England word- and nature-lover, “You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books;/You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me:/You shall listen to all sides, and filter them from yourself.”

2 thoughts on “Here is a bird in whose strain the story is told

  1. Pingback: “So little cause for carolings / Of such ecstatic sound / Was written on terrestrial things” | Ramble

  2. Pingback: Tracking migration: a window into the lives of wood thrushes | Ramble

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