return of the hermit thrush

April 11, 2005

in Birds,Field work,Natural history

“Mounting toward the upland again, I pause reverently as the hush and stillness of twilight come upon the woods. It is the sweetest,  ripest hour of the day. And as the hermit’s evening hymn goes up  from the deep solitude below me, I experience that serene exaltation of sentiment of which music, literature, and religion are but the faint types and symbols.” – John Burroughs, Wake Robin, 1871

Hermit Thrushes are returning to our area. A few stay the winter here, but this past winter the fruit crop was poor and snow cover substantial, and we found none on our surveys. Now on my morning walks, I am privileged to start my day being serenaded by these spring arrivals. Many people have written words of praise for the song of the Hermit Thrush, but it’s appropriate that I begin with the familiar quote by John Burroughs, who, as a friend of Henry Ford, walked the same woods in which I hear these birds today.

Native Americans have a well-known legend on how the Hermit Thrush acquired his beautiful song. Once, birds did not sing, and the Creator instructed that the bird who flew the highest would be rewarded with the most excellent song. The Hermit Thrush knew he was no match for the eagle, and stole a ride hidden in the eagle’s feathers. After the eagle had climbed as far into the sky as possible, the Hermit Thrush took off, and reached the spirit world, thus obtaining his superb melody. However, returning to earth he felt guilty, realizing he had cheated, and retreated into the deep woods to live his hermit’s life, singing his incredible song.

This is one of my favorite birds. Most ecologists appreciate a species that they have gathered extensive interesting data on, and that’s why I like Hermit Thrushes as a study subject. But it always helps when your subjects are engaging on their own merits, and have a trait, like an amazing song, that “steals upon the sense of an appreciative listener like the quiet beauty of a sunset”* and is able to stir your heart.

You can read about Hermit Thrushes here, and although one really has to be out in the field to truly appreciate it, you can listen to the song of the Hermit Thrush.

*M. Chamberlain (1882), in The Birds of North America by A. C. Bent.


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