Human songs, like the names we give birds, are a funny thing. Their meaning often remains just out of grasp, at least in part because they change depending on their context.
Take The Beatles’ iconic song “Blackbird.”
To the ears of a new American birder, it’s a strange thing to sing to a blackbird. After all, our continents blackbird’s — notably, the Red-winged Blackbird, but also birds like Common Grackles, Rusty Blackbirds, and Brewer’s Blackbirds — aren’t known songsters. They creak instead of singing (to our ears). Sure, their songs tell you almost all you need to know about the arrival of spring. But they’re not particularly musical.
But the Blackbirds of Europe and Asia, where Paul McCartney may or may not have heard one singing in the dead of night, are. As genus Turdus, members of the True Thrush family, these Blackbirds belong to one of the most renowned families of bird songsters.
According to McCartney, the song wasn’t ornithological, but a coded message to the Civil Rights movement in the US. Even so, the encoding works because Blackbirds are prodigious singers, as Robins are, filling the pre-dawn minutes, sunrise, the morning, the early afternoons, then the dusk again with their songs.
Thrushes and Everything After
The extended family of thrushes includes birds like the Wood Thrush, about whom Henry David Thoreau wrote,
This is the only bird whose note affects me like music. It lifts and exhilarates me. It is inspiring. It changes all hours to an eternal morning.
Many species of Thrushes can do this. For me, the Veery changes all hours into the long North Woods dusks in which I first heard them.
The Veery’s song is such that the account in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Birds of the World can’t help but dabbling in poetry. Accounts in Birds of the World are usually restrained. But the Veery’s song is described with a word that is nearly as lovely as the song itself: “mellifluous.” One does not get four sentences into the account of the Veery’s song before reading that the
Ethereal quality of Veery’s song has been celebrated in prose for more than a century. “Their song consist[s] of an inexpressibly delicate metallic utterance…accompanied by a fine trill which renders it truly seductive” (Baird et al. 1874b).
Three Songs Inspired by Thrushes + 1 Bird Formerly Known as a Thrush + 1 Blackbird
Not surprisingly, human songs find inspiration in the songs of Thrushes. Or perhaps it’s somewhat different. We try to embellish our own music by borrowing the magic of theirs. Here are three songs inspired, one way or the other, by Thrushes. And a fourth inspired by a bird formerly known as a Thrush. And fifth from one species of Blackbird — who, unlike the Common Blackbird, is indeed a Blackbird, though you might not know it.
Dan Deacon – “True Thrush”
Sure, Dan Deacon’s “True Thrush” doesn’t mention thrushes. But there’s the common name for genus Turdus, that of the Common Blackbird and the American Robin, right there in the song’s title and in the frenetic video for this even more frenetic song.
Horse Feathers – “Starving Robins”
Staying with genus Turdus. The indie band Horse Feathers’ plaintive song “Starving Robins” is a song about the struggles of seasons, as well as the movement of time. As spring tries to emerge from winter, we’re met with another frost–
Right out of the blue A frost came to abuse Down where the deer ate the dying grass Near where the starving robins asked Where's the Spring?
I can relate. I suppose that means the local robins can, too. Here in Colorado winter and spring intermingle until late May. We’re never really sure of the change, until it’s too late and the summer’s upon us.
Tallest Man on Earth – “Where Does My Bluebird Fly?”
One hopes that the Swedish singer-songwriter Kristian Matsson hasn’t spent his years in Europe looking for these flying bluebirds. As forlorn as this song would be such a search: Bluebirds are Western Hemisphere thrushes, nowhere to be found in Europe (despite an earlier reference to them along the White Cliffs of Dover).
Bluebirds are not nearly the songsters that members of their extended family are. But no thrushes are more certain signs of spring. Though Thoreau was thinking of the Eastern Bluebird when he wrote, “The bluebird carries the sky on his back,” it is the West’s Mountain Bluebird that does this, surely.
“A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”
According to the venerable Wiki, two European nightingales — the Common Nightingale and the Thrush Nightingale — used to be categorized with Blackbirds and Robins in genus Turdus. Today, both are genus Luscinia and recognized to be Old World Flycatchers.
Lost in the common names? Let’s get loster. Europe’s Robins are also Old World Flycatchers, but to the Europeans who came to the Americas, the New World’s Robins looked enough like the Old World ones to deserve the name.
Want to get loster still? In North America, several species of birds carry the folk name “American Nightingale.” One is the Hermit Thrush. The other is the Northern Mockingbird, neither a Thrush nor a flycatcher, but a member of the family Mimidae.
Back to the Nightingale. One of Europe’s most famous songsters, the bird has inspired songs on both sides of the Atlantic. One of the early standards is the love song “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.” Written in France in 1939 about a romantic encounter in a London park, the song’s been often covered, especially by American crooners (Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, and Bobby Darin).
Fleet Foxes – “Meadowlarks”
The Common Blackbird looks like a blackbird, but isn’t. Meadowlarks borrow the name of the Lark family, but don’t belong to them. With their straw-brown back giving way to a bright yellow chest, Meadowlarks doesn’t like they’re at home with among blackbirds. But like Red-winged Blackbirds, Grackles, and Orioles, Meadowlarks are members of the Icteridae family.
The three species of meadowlarks that nest in the U.S. are remarkable singers. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Western Meadowlarks have a repertoire of about a ten songs. Their eastern counterparts have 5-10 times that. Despite the prodigiousness of the Eastern Meadowlark, it’s the Western that’s garnered more attention. Six states honor it as their state bird: Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, and Wyoming. Like other blackbirds, the Meadowlark’s song is one of the surest signs of spring.
The Fleet Foxes’ “Meadowlark” is a lovely homage to this grassland bird.