Listening to a Continent Sing

the companion website to the book by Donald Kroodsma


Lake Anna State Park, Spotsylvania, Virginia

May 20; 7:17 a.m.

Sunrise at 5:57 a.m.

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What is it about a wood thrush singing in the rain that so enthralls? For 12 minutes I listened, capturing two minutes in this recording, thrilled by his performance. He sings from fairly low in the understory, with seemingly nothing to disturb him, consistently singing at a clip of 13-14 songs per minute, with 27 songs in this selection. How I wish I could hear far better all that he does after those soft bup bup notes at the beginning, to roll with the melodious tones in the ee-o-lay prelude, to hear how he uses his two voices simultaneously in the more percussive ending.

I listen for a distinctive ee-o-lay phrase just after the bup bup notes, and pick out the third one (at 0:11); I've heard it before from many other wood thrushes, as it consists of a low note followed by a pair of three, rapidly descending tones. It's there in the third song (3), and then I start counting, 11, 15, 18, 23, 27, all in the first two minutes. If I make a small assumption, that he doesn't especially favor or disfavor this particular ee-o-lay, I can divide 27 by 5 and calculate that he has about five different ee-o-lay phrases in his repertoire.

I explore further, listening and viewing the sonagrams in Raven-lite, giving letter labels to all of the ee-o-lay phrases, giving number labels to the ending trills, and within minutes I have a better feeling for what he's up to. In half-minute blocks of time, here's what he does during these two minutes:

A1 B2 C3 A4 D2 B5 E6

D3 A7 B1 C8 E6 D3

A4 C8 B5 A1 C3 B2 A4

B1 A7 C8 E6 A4 B2 C3

Yes, he does have five different ee-o-lay phrases, lettered A, B, C, D, and E. It's satisfying that my casual listening and detailed analyses produce the same results. And I number eight different ending trills, 1-8. I can readily see how he creates the variety in his singing, too. Look at the A phrases and see how they're coupled with ending phrase 1, 4, or 7, but no others: A1, A4, A7, A4, A1, A4, A7, A4. B occurs with 1, 2, 5; C with 3 and 8; and so on.

How satisfying to capture a small glimpse of what is stored in this wood thrush's mind and understand how he packages one of the finest performances any bird can put together.


Red-eyed vireo, red-bellied woodpecker drumming, brown-headed cowbird, Canada goose, eastern wood-pewee, tufted titmouse. And rain throughout.


Photo by John Van de Graaff