BIRDS WITH UNMUSICAL VOICES.
THERE are quite a number of birds whose un musical voices are frequently heard along the high way, and whose emphatic and curiously expressive notes are nearly as interesting as the songs of more skillful singers.
It is not perfectly just, however, to use the term unmusical in connection with any of the voices of Nature, but I employ the word here in a comparative sense. An acute ear will detect the musical quality in every sound; the unmusical ear is simply more or less tone-deaf. He who sings so simple a melody as My Country ‘tis of thee, and “flats” without knowing it, lacks the ability to measure the intervals between the tones; he could never make a pianoforte tuner! How much less, then, can we expect him to discover the distinct musical fifth in the distant bellow of a cow on the hillside:1
In any sound of whatever kind which is not a harsh noise, there is a keynote (tone). Niagara Falls is no exeeption to the rule; to my ear it distinctly hums a profound organ note. But according to atmospheric conditions and one’s relative position to the falls, the organ tone is higher or lower.
can not pass a barn yard without hearing the unmusical cackle of the
hen; yet a little careful attention will perhaps bring with it the
knowledge that the racket is not simply a noise after all. This is
what I make of it:
Not even the twitting chatter of the barn swallow is really unmusical, and the night song of a million crickets is a lullaby of two soothing notes,2 immensely musical in effect.
is the case, then, that there are unmusical birds, if we consider the
matter strictly in the light of comparison. The hermit thrush is a
musician, but the little chipping sparrow has no music in his soul
beyond what we may discover in his lisping chip. Some of the
birds have most remarkably vigorous voices, which, musical or
unmusical, we are pretty sure to hear at no very great distance from
The first of these is the golden-crowned thrush (not a thrush at all but a warbler), or ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapillus). He is about six inches long. His back is brown-olive, his crown subdued golden-orange edged by black stripes, his breast and sides are streaked with black, and his under parts are dull white.
The Golden–crowned thrush has an emphatic and somewhat hysterical voice, which slightly resembles the loud swishing sound of a stout whip as it is lashed back and forth. What he says seems to be:
“Queecher, Queecher, QUEECHER, QUEECHER, QUEECHER, QUEECHER.’’
But although these notes are far from musical, they possess a strong whistlelike quality whieh is at least startling and amusing.3
Burrough’s interpretation of this bird’s language is “Teacher, teacher,” etc., crescendo, fortissimo. This loud-voiced golden-crowned thrush has also a fine melodic warble which he indulges in about the time of sunset during the nesting season; but his summer note, the only one I know, is the far more common queecher.
The nest is usually built on the ground in the woods; in it one may find from three to four white eggs marked with rust-color and brown on the larger ends.
The next bird with an unmusical note is the Maryland yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas). This modest little creature is scarcely more than five inches long. His back, wings, and tail are dull olive-green; over the forehead and about the eyes is a broad band of slate-black edged above by another band of white; the throat and breast are yellow and the legs silver-white.
The nest4 is built in some secluded retreat among the briers, dead leaves, and grass, on or very near the ground; in it the little bird lays from three to five tiny, semitranslucent, buff-white eggs speckled with reddish brown.
Among the mountain maples beside the road, and often through the alder thickets which border the brook, the yellowthroat may be seen flitting here and there, and occasionally stopping to inquire —
“Which is it? Which is it? Which is it?” in a shrill, piping voice; or frequently he seems to say “We-chi-chi-chee. We-chi-chi-chee. We-chi-chi chee.”5
The Maryland yellowthroat is a regular visitor of Campton, N. H. Throughout the glad months of May and June he is perpetually dodging in and out among the shrubbery of the beautiful highway that leads north-ward to the Franconia Notch, and continuously pressing the passers-by with his vigorous questioning.
Another unmusical character, and a quite common one, is the blaek-capped titmouse, or chickadee (Parus atricapillus). This bird is a little over five inches long. His head is black and the rest of his body is in effect a pretty even gray; beneath and behind his eye is a well-marked, wedge-shaped gray-white band; the throat is black and the breast white- gray; the wings and tail are blackish but gray-edged.
The titmouse chooses for a nest some hole in a tree, and Wilson says the bird not infrequently is satisfied with the deserted retreat of a squirrel or a woodpecker. According to my own observations the titmice sometimes return to their own previous home, and continue housekeeping again as though they had never been away. For two years past apparently the same pair of birds have come back to the old home in an apple tree behind my cottage. The female lays five or six white eggs speckled with brown-red.
These birds are characteristically vivacious. They are veritable little acrobats, forever tumbling about the small twigs of the orchard trees, now upside down and again letting go their hold to turn (it always looks that way) a double back somersault in the air! Hardly is this performance ended when two twittering individuals engage in a momentary “scrap,” and away they flit to a neighboring tree. Then a sprightly, rasping little voice is heard, saying; “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee! Chick-a-dee-dee-dee!” The “chick” is a squeaky whistle, and the “dee-dee” is a rasping, flat note like that of the blue jay. To my ear it has a nasal quality. I have drawn this bird in one of his characteristic positions. He frequents the river borders where the trees and bushes bend over the water, so I have sketched with him a bit of the pretty Huron River, near Ann Arbor, Mich., where he can frequently be seen flitting in and out among the shrubbery.
A still more familiar bird, whose nest is pretty sure to be among the alders or the elder-berry bushes, not far from the highway, is the catbird (Galeoscoptes Carolinensis), a not very distant relative of the musical thrush. He is almost a uniform slate-gray, his crown and tail being but a trifle blacker; under his tail and wings is a dark ruddy color. The nest will be found firmly fixed in the crotch of an elder berry bush, maybe, and in it we will see from three to five deep blue-green eggs without spots. Near by the female is restlessly bobbing in and out among the foliage, flirting her tail and inviting us to move on. I recollect from early boyhood just such a nest, situated exactly this way in a certain wooded lot near the road which led down to one of the most beautiful sheets of water in Putnam County, N. Y. — Lake Mahopac.
We are aware of the proximity of a catbird by the sudden note of uneasiness which we hear. The sound is certainly very catlike, but harsh and hoarse! The catbird’s notes are devoid of sonorous quality; one is a snappy trot-test-tut-tut-tut, and another is a flat and nasal mew which starts loud and suddenly and finishes with a diminuendo, thus:
However similar this may be to the cat’s mee-ow, I do not think it is nearly as much like it as the screech of the peacock, who really does say
with unmistakable distinctness, and double fortissimo too! Truth to tell, the peacock can out-yowl the cat on all occasions.
The catbird, however, is not unmusical; his mew is perhaps his only rasping note, for when he chooses to sing at the time of nesting, more particularly in the early morning, his notes are extremely varied and expressive. Here are some of them:
But whether he is nearly related to the thrushes or not, the fact remains that his songs are neither of silver nor of gold; and, figuratively speaking, these precious metals are melted into music as soon as the hermit and the Wilson thrushes open their throats!
This reminds me of the fact that the voices of birds are more varied and musical than those of any other creatures in the world. Even the rooster has a tuneful crow —
The cat tribe roars and mews and hisses; that is all. But the birds! — is there any end to their powers of vocalization? They can chirrup, chip, caw, whip-poor-will, whistle, chick-a-dee, hoot, howl, cackle, crow, gobble, quack, drum, cluck, ehirp like crickets, mew like cats, talk like human beings, cry like babies, squeak like cart wheels; in fine, beyond their own extensive répertoire of musical and unmusical sounds, they can (many of them) imitate all creation from the voice of man down to a creaking barn door!
Three of the strangest of the bird voices (they are also very familiar ones) are those of the whip-poor will, night hawk, and screech owl. The first every one recognizes, and the uncanny tones of the last probably every one knows without being able to tell what kind of a ereature they belong to. Both of these birds are, in a measure, musical, although it will be difficult for me to represent by musical signs the true character of their singing. As every one, I suppose, can recall the exact intonation of the whip poor-will’s few notes, I imagine it will be interesting to see how they can be musically rendered:
The “kuk” we can only hear if we are within twenty yards or so of the bird; it sounds as though in sucking in his breath for the next “whip” he snapped his beak together. This somewhat melancholy vesper song begins at sundown and continues, less and less frequently, well on into the night. The whip-poor-will (Antrostomus vociferus) is a large bird, perhaps ten inches long. About his bill are long, stiff, curved hairs. His colors are a variety of tawny, light, and dark browns; on the breast is a narrow band of white. In this respect his coloring is exactly like that of a toad, or perhaps the large brown branch of a tree on which he sits in a crouching attitude, with his wings slightly spread and his body jerking violently with every “whip.”
The bird is not often seen, but he is heard every where, and one can locate him by the sound of his voice, now on the wood pile,7 then on the fence, next in the copse beside the road, and again in the bushes bordering the garden. Before one knows it he is gone; he flies low and silently, and sails along until he reaches, some thirty yards away, a convenient bough, upon which he settles and immediately begins his song again.
The whip-poor-will does not build a nest, but selects some very secluded spot in the woods, where, among the brush, dry leaves, and old logs, she usually lays two eggs resembling those of the night hawk, of a dull gray-white color spotted plentifully with olive- brown. It is a common but curious practice among some birds not to build nests, but either to depend upon those of other birds or to take all the chances of harm to their offspring by choosing a merely sequestered spot on the ground.
The next strange-voiced bird is the night hawk (Chordeiles Virginianus). A strange-looking creature (not a true hawk at all), with a very small bill and a very large mouth, closely resembling the whip poor-will, but far more beautifully marked. The night hawk is about ten inches long; around his eyes is a buffish brown patch bounded below with a tri angular patch of dull white, whieh extends beneath the bill; the wings and tail are blackish brown with sharply defined bands of dull white; the other parts are varied tones of spotted light brown.
The female has no band of white about the throat, and is very moderately marked on wings and tail. She lays two eggs of a gray-white tone, speckled all over with olive-brown, in some secluded spot by the edge of the wood; the eggs so closely resemble the general color-effect of dried leaves, stones, and brown ground that they are hard to dis cover. Of course the birds build no nests. It is a peculiarity of the night hawk that by reason of the short and slender form of his legs and feet, which are in no wise adapted to grasp a limb crosswise with any firmness, he sits on the branch lengthwise. This is also the case with the whip-poor-will; I have never seen either bird in any other position on fence rail or tree.
About the twilight hour the performances of the night hawk on the wing are most extraordinary; it is not possible for one to miss seeing them in summer time, while passing along the highway just after sun set. Far above valley and hill he circles, a small bird in appearance (although in reality he measures twenty-three inches across with his wings spread). Slowly and quietly he continues an erratic flight, with apparently no object in view except that of enjoying a little exercise, and uttering the while his shrill whistled “geep, geep, geep” (not unlike the squeaking of a cart wheel). Suddenly we see him pitch over head foremost and fall precipitately seventy or eighty feet as though shot; but he recovers himself immediately and rises to greater heights. Hardly is the recovery complete, however, before a strange whirr-r-r-r-rrr reaches our ears, sounding perhaps like the very distant bellow of a cow forsaken on some lonely hillside. The sound has a sonorous quality which it is hard to describe. I have heard a fractious rolling door make just such a noise, and in a sudden rise from the ground the pigeon makes a weaker but similar one by the rapid beating of the air with his wings.8 Wilson says the same sound may be produced by blowing strongly into the bunghole of an empty hogshead, but he adds that the night hawk doubtlessly makes this noise by the sudden expansion of his capacious mouth while he passes through the air! (What an extraordinary theory!) I am sure that the rapid beating of the bird’s wings to re cover himself after his swift fall is the most satisfactory explanation of the mysterious “whirr-r-r-r-rrr.”9
The Night Hawk's tumble.
The last strange-voiced creature is the oddest of all; it is the screech owl (Megascops asio), a blood thirsty little villain, scarcely eight inches tall as he sits on a bough; nevertheless he sings. His colors are brown and gray, and they are pretty well mixed. In some specimens which I have seen the coloring is decidedly ruddy; but this is not to be wondered at as the birds are extremely variable in the general tone of their plumage. The screech owl makes her nest in the hollow trunk of a tree; it is, of course, a very slight affair, of much the same character as a hen’s nest, with bits of grass, feathers, shreds of bark, and so forth, in its make up. The eggs are white, clean, and nearly round in form; there are from three to five in a nest.
I said the owl sang; but I must admit that the song is not altogether musical, for it has yet another far more ascendant quality. There is something eerie about its cadence, something depressing about its unearthly sadness, which on a dark night makes one’s flesh creep! We might take it for the despair ing, quavering voice of a lost and wandering spirit, or the distant ghostly cheers of Henrick Hudson’s crew up in the mountain, when some one of their number has made a “ten strike.”
The song of the screech owl may be musical or not, that is a matter of opinion; but that it is a great stimulant to the imagination there can be no possible shadow of doubt! We perhaps think of all manner of blood-curdling things which may be happening, and the suggestive voice fits the case exactly; in fact, we might find ourselves wondering why we do not fly to the rescue!
Here is a peculiarly distressing crescendo shake which is quite common:
It is just a little bit suggestive of a tree toad, yet it is not the quiet, subdued voice of that soothing little creature at all. Again, the owl sings:
and we imagine some one badly hurt lying moaning and nearly breathless on the distant road. But again we hear the strange voice, and now it sounds like a far-away hysterical laugh:
This is the owl’s spring song!
The screech owl is a bird of prey, and he is not particular about a small matter of theft and murder; for some night he will appear before the oriole’s home when the family is asleep, and if the nest in the pear tree is shallow he will claw out the young ones and devour them at his leisure one by one. Not even the mother bird may escape his murderous attack. The pendulous nest of the oriole is comparatively safe in either the elm or the maple, because on both these trees the leaves are large and abundant; but in spring the orchard trees with their thin foliage are bad homes for birds and good hunting grounds for owls. However, the chief food of this owl is mice and insects; he does not often dine on young orioles.
The screech owl is common North and South. He flits at dusk along the roads which wind through the mountains of northern New Hampshire, and he resorts to the unfrequented byways of New Jersey; in fact, he is a bird quite at home on the dark and lonely road, where he can undisturbed plan his mischievous plots — robber that he is! I have met him in the far North on the shaded road which approaches the Dixville Notch, N. H., and on a lonely byway leading through the scrubby pines of Monmouth County, N. J.___________________________
1 Not all cows bellow thus, but a great many come exceedingly close to this description.
2 See Chapter VI, Meadow Singers.
3 I can not with satisfaction locate the tone; I should say it was a presto slur back and forth between the third E above and the fourth B above middle C.
4 The nest is rarely found; but Burroughs describes his good fortune in discovering it one day about six inches from the ground, in a bunch of ferns. It was a massive nest built of the stalks and leaves of dried grass, and lined with fine, dark-brown roots.
5 Frank M. Chapman, in the Handbook of Birds, says: “The birds near New York city seem to me to say, beseech you, I beseech you, I beseech you,’ though, to be sure, the tone is far from pleading.”
6 The a as in jasper.
7 I think it is Dr. Abbott who has intimated that the wood pile has of late years gone out of fashion as a perch for the whip poor-will. That may be the case in civilized New Jersey; but should any one come up into the wilds of New Hampshire and sit on an obscure corner of my wood pile at dusk, I think he will be convinced that the whip-poor-will has not given up his old habit
8 I must not omit to say, too, that the partridge, at the end of his “drumming,” also whirrs.
9 This is Audubon’s theory. But I do not entertain the slight est doubt about the matter. The sound reaches the ear just after the recovery, and this is of itself an all-sufficient proof that the wings produce it; nevertheless it is said that the European goat sucker utters the hollow whirr when perched and while holding his head downward. I doubt it, though. Frank M. Chapman, I am glad to say, considers that the night hawk’s whirr is produced by the passage of air through the bird’s primaries, i.e., larger wing feathers.