Daily Archives: June 4, 2009

Birding by Music

As I walked to the library through the lush woods of Schenley Park on a bright day last month, I stopped to listen to a singing bird. The unseen bird sang from a nearby tree. Mid morning car traffic didn’t dominate the soundscape, and I was able to hear a clear, silver fluted melody no human virtuoso could have matched. Each phrase ended with a metallic, buzzing trill. I listened, and searched for ways to describe what I heard. I thought of an electronic stream of chirps and whistles, the musical yet otherworldly language of Star Wars’ R2D2. 

I arrived at work enchanted. How could I identify the bird I’d heard? Remembering a recommendation from Kathie’s post about the birds of spring, I checked out and brought home Lang Elliott’s Music of the Birds: A Celebration of Bird Song. It includes a CD of 70 plus bird songs. The first group on the recording included my bird. The common Eastern songbird I’d discovered in Schenley Park (not common to me, a native Westerner) was a wood thrush.

Title page, Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music

Title page

After I told my husband of my discovery, he grabbed a book from his music collection, Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music, by F. Schuyler Mathews, published in 1904. Artist, composer, botanist and bird lover, Mathews brought all his talents into play in this book. The little volume contains musical transcriptions, in standard notation, of the songs of 127 species, as well as a lyrical description of each bird. Mathews traded his pen for a brush to illustrate each bird in watercolor.

The book was produced before the advent of field recording. A modern bird book using sound-analyzing technology might seem a step above Mathew’s critical study made using only human ears. But an archived NPR story, “The Music of Wild Birds,” reports that the Field Book still teaches and inspires students of both birds and music.  


Wood Thrush

About the wood thrush’s song, Mathews writes, ” . . . it fills one’s heart with the solemn beauty of simple melody rendered by an inimitable voice! . . . The quality of tone is indescribably fascinating; it is like the harmonious tinkling of crystal wine-glasses combined with the vox angelica stop of the cathedral organ. The song suggests divine inspiration.”

It’s June. Trees are fully leaved, and the dense woods hide a singing bird. We’re left to “bird by sound,” local bird guru Kate St. John told me today at Schenely Plaza, where she was on Peregrine Fledge Watch. As far as  F. Schuyler Mathews was concerned, we’re also left to bird by music. The wood thrush sings amen.



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