Stacey Cole's Nature Talks: Thrush gives listeners a musical performance

STACEY COLE August 02. 2013 8:06PM

A LOVELY BIRD SONG caught the ears of a Wolfeboro couple who wrote: "We have a large wooded area at the back of our spacious lot behind our house. Frequently, at dusk and dawn, a bird in that area sings its magnificent song which brings to mind a piccolo going up and down the scales. I have looked for it but it must prefer to be deep in the forest, though perhaps high in the trees. Hope you can help identify this bird."

Identifying birds through someone else's eyes or ears is not the easiest thing to do. In this case, however, I believe I can come pretty close. The location, times of day, and the word "piccolo" our readers used as clues were most helpful.

I would have preferred the word "flute" instead of "piccolo," but as one might say: "Close enough."

I suggest it is one of two bird species. My first choice is the wood thrush as, in my experience, it has been the most common of the two. According to the National Audubon Society, there are only one half as many wood thrushes in North America now as there were 50 years ago.

About the song of the wood thrush, Henry David Thoreau in his Journal of July, 1852 wrote: "The thrush alone declares the immortal wealth and vigor that is in the forest. Here is a bird in whose strain the story is told. 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."

Arthur Cleveland Bent in volume 3 of his "Birds: of Massachusetts and Other New England States" wrote: "Among all the bird songs I have ever heard, it is second only in quality to that of the hermit thrush. It is not projected upon the still air with the effort that characterizes the bold and vigorous lay of the robin, or the loud or intermittent carol of the thrasher. Its tones are solemn and serene. They seem to harmonize with the sounds of the forest, the whispering breeze, the purling water, or the falling of rain drops in the summer woods. As with most other birds, there is a great difference in the excellence of individual performances ... 'A-olee,' he sings and rests; then, unhurried, pours forth a series of intermittent strains which seem to express in music the sentiment of nature; powerful, rich, metallic, with the vanishing vibratory tones of the bell ... clothed in a melody so pure and ethereal. ... The song rises and falls, swells and dies away."

The song of the hermit thrush is similar. Its notes are also flute-like, with the occasional soft caress of an oboe. The hermit thrush begins its song with a singular tone, then follows it with a mixture of woodwind-like notes.

I suggest that our reader-couple use a computer and search for these two bird songs, listen to them carefully, to see if either sounds familiar. I believe the complete songs may be found in the Wikipedia at no cost. (I'm not knowledgeable enough with a computer to give instructions.)

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A MANCHESTER GENTLEMAN wrote on July 7: About a month ago my wife and I were outside gardening and saw the smallest hummingbird ever, (about 1/3 the size of a ruby-throat). It was flying around the lilac bushes which were in full bloom.

The tiny bird had a bright red body (cardinal red) with a dark head, only about 1-1/4 inches in length tops. At first I thought it was a large flying bug or insect (bumblebee size) but it was most definitely a hummingbird with the wings flapping a hundred miles an hour. It had a long thin beak, and all the manners of the familiar ruby-throat. Hopefully you can identify this species of bird."

I believe our reader was right the first time. As far as I know there are no hummingbirds as he described. What our reader saw, I believe, was a sphinx moth or common clearwing frequently referred to as a "hummingbird moth." In manner of appearance, it does indeed closely "mimic" the actions of a hummingbird. This moth ranges in length from 1.5 to 2.5 inches and its color varies with the seasons and race. Its clear wings move with the rapidity of a hummer. It gets its "clear" wings as a result of the scales on the wings wearing off soon after the moth emerges. Because it feeds at flowers during the day in the style of a hummingbird, it gained its name "hummingbird moth."

There is another sphinx moth ranging from 2.0-3.5 inches known as a "bumblebee moth" and it also has seasonal and racial forms. It differs from the hummingbird moth in that it has an unscaled cell on the front edge of its forewing near the body. Both species of sphinx moths feed on flowers during the day, and both mimic the actions of hummingbirds.

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AS I AM NO LONGER able to write letters, readers who wish a reply should please include their phone numbers. Thanks.

Stacey Cole's address is 529 W. Swanzey Road, Swanzey, 03446.

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