American Ornithology: Volume 1.

WOOD THRUSH. (Turdus melodus.)

This sweet and solitary songster inhabits the whole of North America, from Hudson's Bay to the peninsula of Florida. He arrives in Pennsylvania about the 20th of April, or soon after, and returns to the south about the beginning of October. The lateness or earliness of the season seems to make less difference in the times of arrival of our birds of passage than is generally itnagined. Early in April the woods are often in considerable forwardness, and scarce a summer bird to be seen. On the other hand, vegetation is sometimes no further advanced on the 20th of April, at which time (e.g., this present year, 1807) numbers of wood thrushes are seen flitting through the moist woody hollows, and a variety of the Motacilla genus chattering from almost every bush, with scarce an expanded leaf to conceal them. But at whatever time the wood thrush may arrive, he soon announces his presence in the woods. With the dawn of the succeeding morning, mounting to the top of some tall tree that rises from a low thick shaded part of the woods, he pipes his few, but clear and musical notes, in a kind of ecstasy; the prelude or symphony to which strongly resembles the double-tonguing of a German flute, and sometimes the tinkling of a small bell; the whole song consists of five or six parts, the last note of each of which is in such a tone as to leave the conclusion evidently suspended; the finale is finely managed, and with such charming effect as to soothe and tranquillise the mind, and to seem sweeter and mellower at each successive repetition. Rival songsters, of the same species, challenge each other from different parts of the wood, seeming to vie for softer tones and more exquisite responses. During the burning heat of the day, they are comparatively mute; but in the evening the same melody is renewed, and continued long after sunset. Those who visit our woods, or ride out into the country at these hours, during the months of May and June, will be at no loss to recognise, from the above description, this pleasing musician. Even in dark, wet, and gloomy weather, when scarce a single chirp is beard from any other bird, the clear notes of the wood thrush thrill through the dropping woods, from morning to night; and it may truly be said, that the, sadder the day the sweeter is his song.

The favourite haunts of the wood thrush are low, thick shaded hollows, through which a small brook or rill meanders, overhung with alder bushes, that are mantled with wild vines. Near such a scene he generally builds his nest, in a laurel or alder bush. Outwardly it is composed of withered beech leaves of the preceding year, laid at bottom in considerable quantities, no doubt to prevent damp and moisture from ascending through, being generally built in low, wet situations; above these are layers of knotty stalks of withered grass, mixed with mud, and smoothly plastered, above which. is laid a slight lining of fine black fibrous roots of plants. The eggs are four, sometimes five, of a uniform light blue, without any spots.

The wood thrush appears always singly or in pairs, and is of a shy, retired, unobtrusive disposition. With the modesty of true merit, he charms you with his song, but is content, and even solicitous, to be concealed. He delights to trace the irregular windings of the brook, where, by the luxuriance of foliage, the sun is completely shut out, or only plays in a few interrupted beams on the glittering surface of the water. He is also fond of a particular species of lichen which grows in such situations, and which, towards the fall, I have uniformly found in their stomachs: berries, however, of various kinds, are his principal food, as well as beetles and caterpillars. The feathers on the hind head are longer than is usual with birds which have no crest; these he sometimes erects; but this particular cannot be observed but on a close examination.[2]

Those who have paid minute attention to the singing of birds know well that the voice, energy, a.nd expression, in. the same tribe, differ as widely as the voices of different individuals of the human species, or as one singer does from another. The powers of song, in some individuals of the wood thrush, have often surprised and delighted me. Of these I remember one, many years ago, whose notes I could instantly recognise on entering the woods, and with whom I had been, as it were, acquainted from his first arrival. The top of a large white oak that overhung part of the glen, was usually the favourite pinnacle from whence he poured the sweetest melody to which I had frequently listened till night began to gather in the woods, and the fireflies to sparkle among the branches. But, alas! in the pathetic language of the poet—

One morn I missed him on the accustomed hill,
Along the vale, and on his favourite tree—
Another came, nor yet beside the rill,
Nor up the glen, nor in the wood was he.

A few days afterwards, passing along the edge of the rocks, I found fragments of the wings and broken feathers of a wood thrush killed by the hawk, which I contemplated with unfeigned regret, and not without a determination to retaliate on the first of these murderers I could meet with.

[2] In addition to the above picture of the manners of this thrush, Mr Audubon remarks, that it performs its migrations during the day, gliding swiftly through the woods, without appearing in the open country; that, on alighting upon a branch, it gives its tail a few jets, uttering at each motion a low chuckling note, peculiar to itself; it then stands still for a while, with the feathers of the hind part a little raised. It walks and hops along the branches with much ease, and bends down its head to peep at the objects around.—Ed.[return]