American Yellow Warbler (Dendroica aestiva) singing by J Fenton
How songs are made
Is a mystery,
Which studied for years
Still baffles me.
—R. H. Stoddard.
OME birds are poets and sing all summer,” says Thoreau. “They are the true singers. Any man can write verses in the love season. We are most interested in those birds that sing for the love of music, and not of their mates; who meditate their strains and amuse themselves with singing; the birds whose strains are of deeper sentiment.”
Thoreau does not mention by name any of the poet-birds to which he alludes, but we think our selections for the present month include some of them. The most beautiful specimen of all, which is as rich in color and “sun-sparkle” as the most polished gem to which he owes his name, the Ruby-throated Humming Bird, cannot sing at all, uttering only a shrill mouse-like squeak. The humming sound made by his wings is far more agreeable than his voice, for “when the mild gold stars flower out” it announces his presence. Then
“A dim shape quivers about
Some sweet rich heart of a rose.”
He hovers over all the flowers that possess the peculiar sweetness that he loves—the blossoms of the honeysuckle, the red, the white, and the yellow roses, and the morning glory. The red clover is as sweet to him as to the honey bee, and a pair of them may often be seen hovering over the blossoms for a moment, and then disappearing with the quickness of a flash of light, soon to return to the same spot and repeat the performance. Squeak, squeak! is probably their call note.
Something of the poet is the Yellow Warbler, though his song is not quite as long as an epic. He repeats it a little too often, perhaps, but there is such a pervading cheerfulness about it that we will not quarrel with the author. Sweet-sweet-sweet-sweet-sweet-sweeter-sweeter! is his frequent contribution to the volume of nature, and all the while he is darting about the trees, “carrying sun-glints on his back wherever he goes.” His song is appropriate to every season, but it is in the spring, when we hear it first, that it is doubly welcome to the ear. The grateful heart asks with Bourdillon:
“What tidings hath the Warbler heard
That bids him leave the lands of summer
For woods and fields where April yields
Bleak welcome to the blithe newcomer?”
Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) by Quy Tran
The Mourning Dove may be called the poet of melancholy, for its song is, to us, without one element of cheerfulness. Hopeless despair is in every note, and, as the bird undoubtedly does have cheerful moods, as indicated by its actions, its song must be appreciated only by its mate. Coo-o, coo-o! suddenly thrown upon the air and resounding near and far is something hardly to be extolled, we should think, and yet the beautiful and graceful Dove possesses so many pretty ways that every one is attracted to it, and the tender affection of the mated pair is so manifest, and their constancy so conspicuous, that the name has become a symbol of domestic concord.
The Cuckoo must utter his note in order to be recognized, for few that are learned in bird lore can discriminate him save from his notes. He proclaims himself by calling forth his own name, so that it is impossible to make a mistake about him. Well, his note is an agreeable one and has made him famous. As he loses his song in the summer months, he is inclined to make good use of it when he finds it again. English boys are so skillful in imitating the Cuckoo’s song, which they do to an exasperating extent, that the bird himself may often wish for that of the Nightingale, which is inimitable.
But the Cuckoo’s song, monotonous as it is, is decidedly to be preferred to that of the female House Wren, with its Chit-chit-chit-chit, when suspicious or in anger. The male, however, is a real poet, let us say—and sings a merry roulade, sudden, abruptly ended, and frequently repeated. He sings, apparently, for the love of music, and is as merry and gay when his mate is absent as when she is at his side, proving that his singing is not solely for her benefit.
Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) by BirdingPix
So good an authority as Dr. Coues vouches for the exquisite vocalization of the Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Have you ever heard a wire vibrating? Such is the call note of the Ruby, thin and metallic. But his song has a fullness, a variety, and a melody, which, being often heard in the spring migration, make this feathered beauty additionally attractive. Many of the fine songsters are not brilliantly attired, but this fellow has a combination of attractions to commend him as worthy of the bird student’s careful attention.
Of the Hermit Thrush, whose song is celebrated, we will say only, “Read everything you can find about him.” He will not be discovered easily, for even Olive Thorne Miller, who is presumed to know all about birds, tells of her pursuit of the Hermit in northern New York, where it was said to be abundant, and finding, when she looked for him, that he had always “been there” and was gone. But one day in August she saw the bird and heard the song and exclaimed: “This only was lacking—this crowns my summer.”
White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) by Matt Wagner
The Song Sparrow can sing too, and the Phoebe, beloved of man, and the White-breasted Nuthatch, a little. They do not require the long-seeking of the Hermit Thrush, whose very name implies that he prefers to flock by himself, but can be seen in our parks throughout the season. But the Sparrow loves the companionship of man, and has often been a solace to him. It is stated by the biographer of Kant, the great metaphysician, that at the age of eighty he had become indifferent to much that was passing around him in which he had formerly taken great interest. The flowers showed their beautious hues to him in vain; his weary vision gave little heed to their loveliness; their perfume came unheeded to the sense which before had inhaled it with eagerness. The coming on of spring, which he had been accustomed to hail with delight, now gave him no joy save that it brought back a little Sparrow, which came annually and made its home in a tree that stood by his window. Year after year, as one generation went the way of all the earth, another would return to its birth-place to reward the tender care of their benefactor by singing to him their pleasant songs. And he longed for their return in the spring with “an eagerness and intensity of expectation.”
How many provisions nature has for keeping us simple-hearted and child-like! The Song Sparrow is one of them.
Beside them the birds of the heavens dwell; they sing among the branches. (Psalms 104:12 ESV)
He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD. (Psalms 40:3 ESV)
Variety is the spice of life, or so they say. I agree. The Lord has given each species their own unique way of singing and making vocal sounds. They are as varied as we are. Some people can sing beautifully and some are like me who make more of a “joyful noise.”
It was a challenge to round up the recordings and select the ones I wanted. I trust you enjoy them as well as I do.
The above article is an article in the monthly serial for September 1897 “designed to promote Knowledge of Bird-Live.” These include Color Photography, as they call them, today they are drawings. There are at least three Volumes that have been digitized by Project Gutenberg.