Monday, June 15, 2009

The salmonberry bird.

These warm summery days, from the Gulf Islands to Newfoundland, a song can be heard--the exceptionally captivating song of a bird that breeds in every Canadian province and territory, the Swainson's Thrush.

Although a common forest bird, the Swainson's Thrush is secretive. Unless a keen birder, you probably haven't had a close look at one. But if you have walked in a summer forest anywhere in Canada you may have heard its song, a soft, sweet, series of liquid notes spiralling upward. Other thrushes manage such appealing subtleness too, of course. If you've heard a Veery, it's a similar song, but turned upside-down.

The Swainson's Thrush in shape resembles the familiar American Robin, but is smaller and brown-backed, with a buffy, mottled front. It nests in coniferous forests, and favours the presence of an understory containing berry-bearing plants, such as salmonberry and thimbleberry, which are native relatives of raspberries. It was known to coastal First Nations peoples as the salmonberry bird, because its distinctive voice was heard about the time of the appearance of the salmonberries.

Salmonberries, Rubus spectabilis, red colour morph.

Salmonberries, Rubus spectabilis, orange colour morph.

Non-practitioners suppose that bird-watching is a cushy activity. It is not. It is physically and psychologically gruelling, and the taunting elusiveness of the Swainson’s Thrush is one of the hardships you must overcome to earn your avi-cred. In addition to the intricate and lovely courtship song, there is the maddening call of this species. Many birds have both an elaborate song, and a simple, one-note call. The call of the Swainson's thrush goes, “Whoit, whoit, whoit..” It goes on forever and is ventriloqual, like dripping water on several sides at once. Stand there for an hour, and still you will not see the bird. You are wise to give up and try again another day, before you are driven mad. The accompanying picture was a fluke, especially since shot with my old point&shoot, Mr. H.

Swainson's Thrush. Photo by Mr. Hesitation.

You must, if at all possible, go out and hear this bird. It is a migrant species, and will be headed back to South America by September. I was pleased to find that someone has transcribed its song as a musical score and performed it on piano. Recreating a bird song, especially one as complex as this, as written music is like scoring the sound of a bucket of nails tumbling down a metal staircase. Have a listen at


Kim and Victoria said...

Nice. Thanks for the link.
There is a bird which sings while we're camping, only at dusk. I've never been able to see it and that drives me nuts.

Karen said...

Very cool about your "capture" and the piano transcription. I keep meaning to try a salmonberry again, I recall sampling some as a child and finding them fairly unpalatable. Have you heard Olivier Messiaen's "Catalogue d'Oiseaux"? Pretty cool stuff.