Breezy Wheezy Singer

photo of Bicknell's Thrush © Larry MasterThe songs of our native thrushes are typically described as being flutelike and ethereal. This description works pretty well for Wood Thrush, Hermit Thrush, and even Swainson’s Thrush, but it isn’t accurate when it comes to the songs of the Veery, Gray-cheeked Thrush, and Bicknell’s Thrush. These latter species have ethereal and musical songs, for sure, but even the flute of Pan could not come anywhere close to imitating them (at least I don’t think). No, I wouldn’t call them flutey, but I would certainly characterize them as being breezy, wheezy rambles of silvery, musical, and reedy notes.

It my opinion, the song of the Bicknell’s Thrush is the breeziest and wheeziest of them all. Found in high altitude spruce forest in the mountains of the Northeast, the scarce and reclusive Bicknell’s is not an easy thrush to record. Ted Mack and I have tried a number of times to get acceptable soundscapes on Whiteface Mountain in the Adirondacks, but we have usually failed. However, in mid-June of 2000 I got lucky. Just before dawn, I set my microphone next to a small brook, not far from the summit. A Blackpoll warbler soon began singing, along with a Winter Wren. Not long after, I heard the call of a lone Bicknell’s off in the distance. Then, to my absolute delight, he flew in close, called loudly, and then did his breezy, wheezy thing for several minutes before silently vanishing into the wilds:

Bicknell’s Thrush calls and songs, with Blackpoll Warbler and Winter Wren. 6am, 13 June 2000, Whiteface Mountain near Lake Placid, NY. Recording © Lang Elliott.

I’m wondering what you think of this bird’s song. How would you describe it? Let me hear your words. Does it sound “flutelike” to you? Is “breezy” and “wheezy” accurate? Imagine this is a contest of words, and the winner will get a free trip up Whiteface this coming June (I’m not sure who’ll pay for that, but it’s a nice idea, isn’t it?).


  1. I heard White-Throated Sparrows way off in the distance, and you can probably only hear them through headphones. Or, are they some other bird? I hear the other birds mentioned too. What a wonderful recording. It sounds very similar to the song of the Gray-Cheeked Thrush, and from what I read, going along with the scarce and reclusive theme, the IUCN Redlist ranks this species as vulnerable.

    I have a question Lang, because I’m a huge fan of you: How many species of birds have you seen during your travels and in New York? Here in Michigan, I’ve only seen about 160.

  2. It sounds like its relatives, but a bit hoarse, as if maybe it has been singing all morning. I love the recording. I’ve heard them on Whiteface, but not recorded them nearly as well as this. Beautiful!

  3. Silvery. Molten silver. Liquid mercury. I can’t remember ever hearing more than a lightning-fast snippet of the Bicknell’s song. The later songs on the recording definitely have a Veery-ish character to them. Another unique gem!

  4. Nature’s orchestration is superb! I love the way the timbres of the Bicknell’s Thrush song and that of the Winter Wren compliment each other. To me they go together as beautifully as Baroque violin and harpsichord.

  5. I find the balance of volumes here just right between the creek, playing along its riffles, and the jubilation of the bird(s). Whether that’s nature’s perfection or your wizardry, it’s terrific.

  6. There is a delicately tremulous quality to the rapid-fire ricochet of notes. Sometimes it is fun to cast adrift in a game of anthropomorphizing attributes, and at others (as you’ve well noted for us) it’s most wonderful simply taken in, enjoyed by nothing more than ‘being with’ the experience … except perhaps at the end of the run to feel grateful for having heard something new to remember.

    • I love all these comments; they will be of great help when I write descriptions for tracks in my forthcoming soundscape product series. Sometimes it’s good to put words to the sounds, other times it’s best to embrace the soundscape without too much explanation. Of course, it’s always nice to know the “setting,” to help one visualize the scene. Of course, there is a form of listening (to music) called “acousmatics,” where the sources of the sounds remain hidden to the listener, encouraging the listener to embrace the soundscape as a whole, without striving to break it into its parts.

  7. Yes, reedy is how I would describe it. I perceive the Bicknell’s song as the most mysterious and magical perhaps because it is so scarce and reclusive. Certainly a beautiful dawn recording.

    • In the birding world, a “trill” is a single note, rapidly repeated (too fast to count). In this respect, the thrush’s song is not a trill, but rather a very complex ramble of notes that cascade download and upward.

  8. What a treasure. Your descriptives are spot on, Lang, but the buzzy bits seem reedy more than flutey to me. Except for the collective unfettered happiness, this piece brings Edith Piaf to mind. Weird. ‘eh?

    Henry Beston (The Outermost House, 1928) refers to wildlife as “gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. ” Well, we surely hear these beauties, but to engage in their dialects would be heaven.

    • Yes, i like that … “reedy” more than flutey. I agree (notice that I edited my post to accommodate). Edith Plaf up on Whiteface? Well, you never know, she may have reincarnated as a thrush.

      Thoreau believed that our “youthful senses” allowed us to tune-in to that other world of sound, but that we lose the ability: “sound and still youthful senses, not enervated by luxury, hear music in the wind and rain and running water.” My favorite Thoreau quote is “How careful we must be to keep the crystal well of which we are made, clear.”

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