The Changing of the Thrushes

1996 Gerard V. Haigh

Seasonal changes in the wilderness of L.A. are relatively subtle, in marked contrast with the glare and gaudiness with which man-made events are staged in our town. The natural world has its spectaculars like earthquakes and volcanos but most of the changes which occur from day to day go by unnoticed except by the keen observers among us. The birds, for example, are always in flux with some moving in and some moving out. One example is the changing of the thrushes whose significance is heightened by the fact that it marks a seasonal change.

This change was heralded for me on a mid-March morning. I had been awakened in the still-dark of predawn by the barking of a lonely dog. A single Great Horned Owl was sounding off his last few hoots of the night. The clamorous cacaphony of House Finches had not yet begun. A loud, clear burst of bird song stirred in me memories reaching as far back as boyhood at Grandma's house in the Hudson River Valley. I was hearing the song of the Robin for the first time of the year!

Later in the morning, I saw a pair of Robins foraging in our garden. They were staking out their territory in preparation for nesting again at our place. I realized that it had been several days since I had seen the Hermit Thrush which had been wintering here. Although it had been feeding on our grounds since October, I was not to see it again until next fall.

The tawney-tailed thrush of winter had been replaced by the tawney-breasted thrush of spring. The changing of the thrushes, although occurring annually rather than daily, is as regular and significant an event as the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. The latter ceremony, of course, is conducted with much more pomp and fanfare. Never-the-less, the changing of the thrushes is arguably more portentous in that it marks the transition from winter to spring.

It may come as a surprise for some to learn that our Robin is a thrush. It may be even more surprising to know that our Robin is not truly a Robin. (Was it Mark Twain who said that Shakespeare's plays were not written by Shakespeare at all but by someone else with the same name?) When our forefathers first settled here, they apparently tried to feel at home in this strange land by seeking similarities with the familiar from which they had come. For starters, they called the new place "New England". One of the birds they found here reminded them of the Robin Redbreast, commonly found both in the English countryside and in European folklore. (The birds which covered with leaves the Babes in the Wood were Robin Redbreasts.) To capture the similarity between Old World and New World birds, they named the new one "Robin".

When the scientific classifiers got around to sorting out all the avian species in the Americas, they decided that the Robin and the Robin Redbreast did not even belong in the same family. Instead, they put our Robin in with the thrushes. The most prominent feature of the thrushes is their speckled breast. The plain breasted Robin doesn't seem to belong. Howver, family affinity shows up in young Robins who sport large spots on their breasts.

Sentiment won out over science and the Robin was allowed to keep its original name even though some ornithologists fussed over the inaccuracy of it.

The Robin and the Hermit Thrush are both highly esteemed for their voices. The Robin's song is perhaps the best known among all American birds while the Hermit's, although one of the least known, is probably the most highly prized for its quality.

The Robin's song heralds the arrival of spring thaw as the wave of singing birds sweeps up the continent from southern Mexico to northern Canada, advancing as the nightime temperatures go above freezing. Once they arrive at any given latitude, the dawning of each spring day is celebrated as "...a wave of Robin song rises on the Atlantic coast...and, preceding the rising sun, rolls across the land until at last it breaks and dies away upon the...shores of the Pacific ocean." (Forbush,1925)

In contrast, with the ubiquitous nature of Robinsong, few people know the song of the Hermit Thrush. Even Audubon apparently never knew it. While the bird is wintering with us in the Santa Monica Mountains, the only sound it makes is a one-note "chuck" call. However, when the Hermit reaches its nesting grounds in the Sierras and beyond, it gives voice to a song which some connoiseurs consider to be even more beautiful that of the Nightingale, that European thrush which has long been celebrated in literature as the finest avian singer in the world.

Walt Whitman wrote of the Hermit Thrush:

"Having studied the Mockingbird's tones and the flight of the mountain hawk, I heard at dawn the unrivall'd one. the hermit thrush from the swamp-cedars..."

The effect on the listener of the Hermit's song has been described by the great naturalist, John Burroughs: "Mounting toward the upland again, I pause reverently as the hush and stillness of twilight comes 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."

It is indeed worth listening for this song if you are hiking in the Sierras in late spring or early summer. When you hear musical notes pealing forth from deep within a coniferous forest and you feel tingles running up and down your spine, you will know that you are probably listening to a Hermit Thrush.

The two thrushes contrast markedly in temperament. The hermit is shy and solitary. The Robin is bold and gregarious.

Thus, most sightings of the hermit during the winter around L.A. are of single birds feeding in the shadows on the ground. The Robin, on the other hand, except when nesting, usually travels in flocks of at least ten and sometimes up to thousands foraging in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Also, while the Hermit's nest is secreted within coniferous forests and is seldom found by people, the Robin often builds its nest in conspicuous places near our dwellings. And in regard to feeding, who has \not\ seen Robins searching for earthworms wherever there are lawns but how many of us have \ever\ seen the Hermit sorting among forest leaves for berries and insects?

When the changing of the thrushes occurs with the advent of spring, it is consistent with their contrasting life styles that many will notice the arrival of the Robin and few will note the departure of the Hermit.

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