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Outdoors: Thrush songs

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"It sounds like you heard a thrush," I told my Interlochen colleague who had heard a remarkably haunting bird song on an evening bike ride so lovely, she had explained, that she just had to stop and listen.

“A Hermit Thrush?" she asked hopefully. She is on our Piano Faculty, so she was familiar with the Amy Beach piano pieces, “A Hermit Thrush at Morn" and “A Hermit Thrush at Eve”

The music critic David Wright wrote, “In this music, Beach does for the Romantic piano piece what Ives did for the symphony: express human longings for nature and the divine through a polytonal mix of natural and artful sounds,”

So did Susan hear a Hermit Thrush? Maybe. Or maybe a Wood Thrush. They both breed in the forests of Northern Michigan, and they look very similar, especially in the twilight hours during which they sing.

But though both species have an ethereal song. Rich with overtones beyond human perception, their songs are distinctive. And the easiest way to distinguish them is to listen to the end.

The flute-like song of a Wood Thrush ends with a high-pitched trill, but the magical song of the Hermit Thrush mysteriously fades away without ascending.  

So why do thrush and other songbirds sing at dawn and dusk? Researchers speculate that males sing when it is still too dark to forage for food, and that sound travels better when the air temperature is lower, and certainly, there is far less ambient noise.

But male birds sing to proclaim their territories, to make sure other males in the area know that they made it through the night or that they survived predation during the day. So for a song, “when the world is black and gray," what time could be more ideal?

"Outdoors with Coggin Heeringa" can be heard every Wednesday on Classical IPR.