5 Remarkable Bird Songs and the Songs They Inspired

The Thrush family includes Bluebirds, Robins, and Blackbirds. The songs of these birds have inspired poets, songwriters, and birders for centuries. Here are the songs inspired by these birds…

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.

Common Blackbird, a relative of the Robin and a member of the Thrush family.
Common Blackbird (Turdus merula).Photo by Niklas Hamann on Unsplash

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 sky blue Mountain Bluebird, a member of the Thrush family.
Mountain Bluebird. Photograph by flickr user Doug Greenberg. Some rights reserved.

“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.

Europe's Robin is unrelated to the American Robin. The former is a flycatcher, the latter a thrush.
Robin. Photo by Abdul Rehman Khalid on Unsplash

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.

A singing Meadowlark.
Photo by Jeffrey Hamilton on Unsplash

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.

Hank Williams and the Most Lonesome Whip-poor-will

Hank Williams wasn’t the first to share his loneliness with a Whip-poor-will. But what did he hear? And what do we hear today?

Hank Williams’ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry 

There’s not much to say about Hank Williams “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Its canon. The song has been frequently covered by other country and folk performers. It’s also alluded to in still other songs, such as Dr. Dog’s “Lonesome.” Even an NFL quarterback covered it. In 1976, Pittsburgh Steeler Terry Bradshaw’s rendition peaked in the top 10 of Billboard’s country music list.

Williams’ wastes no time with his Whip-Poor-Will, which appears in the song’s opening line.

Hear that lonesome Whip-Poor-Will
He sounds to blue to fly
The midnight train is whining low
I’m so lonesome I could cry

I’ve read, but have lost the source, that Williams’ was slyly making an ornithological point here: Whip-Poor-Wills only sing while perched. I haven’t yet confirmed this, though, as Birds of the World doesn’t make note of this. On its face, the claim makes sense. After all, many birds only sing or mostly sing when perched. This is something like the “default setting” for bird songs, so much so that most field guides mention the infrequent occasions when a bird sings while in flight (“skylarking,” see the note about this for Cassin’s Sparrows).

Still, the song begs the question of why a Whip-poor-will would be so lonesome. After all, John James Audubon had a very different experience of North America’s most famous Nightjar.

 Only think, kind reader, how grateful to me must have been the cheering voice of this my only companion, when, fatigued and hungry, after a day of unremitted toil, I have planted my camp in the wilderness, as the darkness of night put a stop to my labours! 

Audubon on Whip-poor-wills
Eastern Whip-poor-will by flickr user Tom Murray

The Lonesome Whip-poor-will?

Williams wasn’t the first to describe Whip-Poor-Wills as mournful or melancholy, so there are other meanings to chase (in future posts). And there’s the sonic qualities of the song itself, whether it indeed sounds like sad music. But I lack a musical enough ear to address those without the aid of others. 

So here, I just want to address one quality of the Whip-Poor-Wills’ call: what we can imagine of the human observer who’s encounters them and hears them as lonely.

To understand the human version of this bird, I think we need to consider how the Whip-poor-will’s cry operates in ways similar to the “kigo” – or season word – of haiku. Like a haiku’s season word, the Whip-Poor-Will’s song conjures a season and the associations it carries. It is a shared symbol, shared enough that others will feel and understand what we mean when we conjure it.

In this case, the season is summer. Whip-Poor-Will only shares its range with those of us north of Mexico and Florida in late-spring, summer, and early autumn. But at the edges of that time, the bird is migratory. By contrast, summer Whip-poor-wills are established in their breeding territories. It is from there where the male will show most commitment to his song.

Summer is also a season of possibility—for us, certainly, but perhaps also for breeding birds. For many a lonesome human, like Williams’ himself, companionship and young love—sometimes actualized, but also unrequited or lost—is one of those possibilities.

Like Whip-Poor-Wills, many birds sing through the summer to establish territories and attract a mate. Aurally, many of those songs suit the activity. (Of course, all those songs suit the activity, whether joyous or mournful to us.) Robins, Finches, and Towhees take prominent perches and boldly sing. Around them, House Wrens bubble. Warblers, meanwhile, warble. These are the songs that articulate summer possibility, filling the morning with rising energies.

Not all birdsongs have this quality (to our ears). I find some of the common flycatchers—Say’s Phoebes, especially—around Denver to also have plaintive songs and calls. So why are we not as lonesome as a Phoebe?

The time of day that a Whip-Poor-Will sings enriches its power as season word. Whip-poor-wills sing at twilight. They sometimes continue deep into nights, particularly moonlit nights.

Perhaps it is only the sleepless listener, with nowhere else to be, who encounters the lonesome Whip-Poor-Will.

Many of us, too, may only hear the Whip-poor-will’s song from some great distance, through the cacophony of an eastern night. Though the song itself is unmistakable, we need to be clear of the human soundtrack—the mix of cars, televisions, phones, and voices—that simultaneously effaces the Whip-poor-will’s and disguises our loneliness. To hear the Whip-poor-will’s song, we need quiet, a quiet only available to those away from gatherings of boisterous friends and whispering others.

Perhaps it is only the one with no one else that encounters the lonesome Whip-poor-will.

So now a more complete image comes into view.

You are deep into a summer evening. The world wears an absence, except for a three-syllable song.

Whip-poor-will, Whip-poor-will, Whip-poor-will, Whip-poor-will, Whip-poor-will, Whip-poor-will.

Song of the Whip-poor-will

You lose count of the cries. But with each repetition, you project your own want, your lack, your need on a bird you imagine sings with your feeling. Why else, after all, would he persist? Why else would he need anything other than a single line unless he, too, knows an absence?

But somewhere else, there may be another. To that other, the song is not lonesomeness. That song does not even sound like the syllables we, poor mimics as we are, mimic it with.

To that other, there is only the original and, still, the intended meaning of an unnamed song.

Featured photo from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hank_Williams#/media/File:Hank_Williams_Promotional_Photo.jpg.

Bird Song #9: Barbara Streisand’s “I’ll Tell the Man on the Street”

Barbara Streisand’s not here for Whip-poor-wills.

On her 1963 debut album, The Barbara Streisand Album, Streisand performs “I’ll Tell the Man on the Street.” The song was originally written for the 1938 musical, I Married an Angel. (The music was made into a film in 1942. Wiki it here.)

The song counters the nostalgia of the cowboy songs of the 1930s (see Bird Song #8). Instead of pining for the open plains, coyotes, and Whip-poor-wills, the song offers us a singer who rejects the natural for the urban world. Streisand sings…

I won’t tell of my love
To every little star
Or the whippoorwill
On the hill above

Instead, she’ll tell, as the title of the song makes clear, “the man on the street.” (She’ll also “give the papers proof” and “use the radio.”)

The song swerves past the Whip-poor-will, leaving it behind for more contemporary symbols of human life. Perhaps it stands as a record of when the bird would be lost — lost to the country and folk singers who got nostalgic for it, and lost to the urbanites who might never have heard it.

Featured Photo by Jason Briscoe on Unsplash

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