“Whenever a man hears it he is young, and Nature is in her spring; wherever he hears it, it is a new world and a free country, and the gates of Heaven are not shut against him,” wrote naturalist Henry David Thoreau.
The Master of Walden was describing what many believe to be the most beautiful song of any North American bird—the wood thrush.
As a group, the thrushes, including the American robin, are exquisite singers. Wood thrushes’ songs have three individual parts. You can really only hear the first part if you’re fairly close to the singer. It consists of two to six short low-pitched “bup, bup, bups” The middle part is flutelike, almost angelic. The phrase is generally described as “ee-oh-lay, ee-oh-lee.” It’s one of the most purely beautiful utterances made by any living creature. The third part of their song is a trill-like phrase that seems to come from somewhere else as though the bird is throwing its voice. It’s described as non-harmonic pairs of notes rapidly and concurrently repeated.
It all sounds as complicated as a Rossini aria but it gets even better. Arias are for one voice. The heart of the wood thrush’s song, the flutelike “ee-oh-lay,” is actually the bird singing a duet with itself. Wood thrush have two sets of vocal cords, so they can sing two overlapping phrases simultaneously, which gives their song a hollow, richer tone, like a sound engineer has added a bit of reverberation. Thrushes’ voice boxes contain two membranes that they can control independently.
Each male wood thrush has a repertoire of various arrangements of these basic parts, some drawn out, some condensed. And each male sings long and often.
A wood thrush returned to Chapman Ridge home yesterday. I heard the first “ee-oh-lay” of the season. And all was right in my world; peace was in my heart.
And as Thoreau suggests, I was young yet once again. My spring tonic had arrived.