A bird’s song adds wonder to the world

If a song defines a place, what does it mean to lose it?

 

The song of the Swainson’s thrush defies description — three low notes followed by an upward burble in a cautionary key, like a sound you might hear in space, as if R2D2 sang a piece by Mozart. While the females forage in the forest for insects and berries, males mount song battles to establish territory. Across the trees, they trade tunes, growing louder and more resonant. It’s America’s Got Talent of the genteel sort.

I first heard the thrush in the mist outside a coastal cabin where I’d gone for two days to retreat from the news — budget threats to the arts, the cries for border walls, impending climate travesties. The liquid trill rang out among the spruces, shaking me out of despair and into the world unfurled. Though I scanned the prickly branches, squinting through binoculars, I couldn’t spot its source. I dashed across the road to my neighbor’s house. “What’s that bird?” I demanded.

“What bird?” the man asked. After so many years, the song had become mere background noise to him. Familiarity, the enemy of awe, overtakes us all.

“It sounds like this.” I attempted to replicate the melody, but choked on my warble.

“You’ve lost me,” my neighbor said, so I returned to my cabin and threw open the windows and shivered in a symphony of unseen, nameless singers.

Hans Norelius

The Swainson’s thrush, like other birds, possesses a two-sided voice box — a syrinx — that allows it to switch rapidly between pitches, even to sing two at once. Two centuries ago, British naturalist Thomas Nuttall traveled to the mouth of the Columbia River and discovered the vocal acrobatics emanating from the syrinx of the thrush. He documented it accordingly, then relegated the bird to the role of specimen. How his pulse must’ve quickened beneath his high starched collar when he first heard the song, how his heart must’ve ached at the sight of the little chorister dead in its box, eastward bound for some museum.

Naturalists then were a generous sort; they named their discoveries after one another in a gesture of homage. Nuttall — who shared his surname with a woodpecker, a magpie and a violet — named the thrush after British naturalist William Swainson. Sadly, Swainson never got to see or hear his bird; he’d relocated to New Zealand, to the bloodcurdling shriek of the kiwi.

I learned all this in my mother-in-law’s home, her Audubon CD echoing through the hallways dawn to dusk as company for her caged songbirds. The Swainson’s call, fragile exuberance in the midst of parakeet screech, rang out from her study. I raced across the house to investigate.

“What is that?” I yelped to the trio of budgies, who lacked in voice what they made up for in pastel plumage. What a thing to possess both substance and style; alas, the thrush in my field guide is a drab little creature with a brown and buff body which it fills unglamorously with insects and earthworms. But, oh, that memorable musical motif. …

Two centuries after Nuttall’s discovery, we can listen to almost anything we desire, whenever we desire. But to hear birdsong in its natural environment — that is a gift. A wild creature calls when it wants to, how it wants and where. I assumed, leaving the cabin on the coast, that I’d not hear the song of the thrush again in real time until I returned.

Miraculously (I’ve learned to take my miracles where I can), I was wrong. Pruning blueberries and fuming over politics in my backyard a hundred-plus miles southeast of the spruce forest one day, I heard the thrush among the firs. I froze and called for my husband. “The Swainson’s!” I whispered. “It’s here.”

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Swainson’s thrushes migrate, flying eight hours a night without food or water, from Canada to Central America and back again. Still, this was the first time I’d heard one in my yard. I bowed my head under the benediction of the bird, its song reminding me to breathe and to listen, to feel the ripening blueberries under my fingertips.

My thrush was a soloist, staying but a day. But he left me this: If a song can define a place — and I think that it can — what does it mean when we can no longer hear it? When the anthem has vanished, when the symphony shuts down and the concert falters, when we retreat behind walls, we become inured to a different background noise: the creak and shriek and gears of our destruction.

We’d do better to throw open our windows and launch song battles ourselves, tournaments of melody, adding wonder to the world instead of terror. Then no one, not even the smallest and drabbest among us, would be mute. We’d all of us sing our names through the trees as proof of our existence and worth, our voices echoing generously for centuries.

Melissa Hart is the author of the forthcoming Better with Books: Diverse Fiction to Open Minds and Ignite Empathy and Compassion in Children (Sasquatch, 2019). Website:

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