Hermit Thrush – Ethereal Singer
A Nature Video by Lang Elliott

The Hermit Thrush is perhaps North America’s most highly regarded singer, both for musicality and emotional impact. The Hermit’s enchanting song begins with a clear whistled note, followed by a rapid flutelike jumble of notes having a ventriloquial quality. Each male has several different song patterns in its repertoire and rarely repeats the same song twice in a row. Poets and naturalists are united in their praise of the Hermit Thrush’s song, describing it variously as tender, serene, wild, ethereal, peaceful, solemn, and ecstatic – adjectives that ascribe an exalted, religious quality to the song (see below for quotes from well-known naturalists and poets).

A Beautiful Hermit Thrush Recording:

Deep in the dark, primeval forest, Hermit Thrushes spin their songs, silken melodies fit for the heavens … awakened, enlightened, fluting pure light. Relax into this ethereal mix of sounds and and be carried into the heavenly joy of nature’s sweet embrace.

Recorded at 5:30am, 25 June 2000, in the Adirondack Mountain near Tupper Lake, NY. © Lang Elliott. Listen also for Coyotes, Barred Owls hooting, and faint calls of Green Frogs and Bullfrogs.

1. The male’s musical song begins with a pure tone, followed by a flutey jumble of notes. Each male has five to ten different songtypes and rarely if ever sings the same pattern twice in a row:

2. A common call is a drawn-out nasal way, often heard at dusk.

3. When agitated or alarmed, individuals give staccato churt calls. Another call is a whistled veeee, associated with flight and migration. Both these calls are featured in the following recording:

The exquisite beauty and extraordinary complexity of the Hermit Thrush’s song is best experienced by slowing songs down to around one-fourth normal speed. This lowers the pitch of the songs into the range of human music, and allows the listener to hear and appreciate rapid transitions between notes.

In the following example, I’ve slowed eight songs and removed the silence between them, so that you can hear them one after the other in quick succession. The complexity of the terminal flutey rambles is impressive:

Appearance: Rich brown above with white underparts speckled with smudged brown spots. The tail (and often the outer wing feathers) is noticeably more reddish-brown than other areas, providing a useful field mark for identification.

Habitat & Breeding Range: Breeds in a wide variety of forest habitats, ranging from wet swamplands and bogs to dry pine woods. Found in northern forests from Newfoundland westward to Alaska, in western mountains as far south as Arizona and New Mexico, and in eastern mountains southward to West Virginia. Overwinters from the southern United States to southern Mexico. Year-round populations occur along the West Coast from northern California to Vancouver Island in British Columbia.

Habits: Migrates in early spring (earlier than our other brown thrushes) and can often be located by listening for their telltale calls and intermittent songs. Feeds on a wide variety of insects and berries, the latter being a major source during the winter months. Nests on the ground in eastern areas and in trees (up to 12′ high) in western mountains. When disturbed, may flick its wing and slowly bob its tail up and down.

John Burroughs thought the Hermit’s song to be an expression of “beatitude” that embodies “a peace and a deep, solemn joy that only the finest souls may know.” The Iroquois believed the Hermit Thrush flew high into the heavens to receive its voice from the spirit world. The melody and cadence of the song is imitated in poetry and prose, with words chosen to convey the reverence that is evoked. Burroughs likened the Hermit’s song to “O spheral, spheral … O holy, holy!” Walt Whitman translated it as “O liquid free and tender … O wild and loose my soul … O wondrous singer.”

The emotional impact of the Hermit’s beautiful song is undoubtedly related to its breeding habitat: dark, cathedral-like forests of hemlock or pine and secluded, swampy stands of cedar, tamarack and spruce. Only a “hermit” would inhabit such remote places, spinning exalted songs and choosing “thus to fling its soul upon the growing gloom,” as poet Thomas Hardy observed in “The Darkling Thrush”. Whitman conveys a similar feeling in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d:

From deep secluded recesses,
From the fragrant cedars and the ghostly pines so still,
Came the carol of a bird.

Another Beautiful Hermit Thrush Recording:

This serene soundscape begins with a lone Hermit Thrush giving nasal way calls, followed by typical songs and then churt calls. Spring Peepers sound off in the distance throughout. Recorded at dusk in the Adirondack Mountains in pine woods near a swampy area.

Recorded 6/7/00, 9:08 pm, in the Adirondack Mountains near Pauls Smith, New York. © Lang Elliott.

Lang in Maples - 150pxI obtained my best video clips during a trip to the Adirondack Mountains in June of 2014. My video portrait features my best clips of three different birds, and I’m quite happy with the result.

When I collected the video, I didn’t get good sound. So I went back later with my recorder and got excellent examples of the complete song repertoires of all three birds (males have six or more different song types). To make the video, I had to painstakingly find matching songs and synch them perfectly with the bill movements in post production. The result is very clean sound, far better than otherwise. Sometimes I have a field assistant who records with a parabola as I gather the video, but I was all alone up there on this occasion, and therefore had to do it the hard way.

I love all the thrushes and their fantastic songs, and I vow to produce excellent video portraits of all our species, even if I have to climb mountains and slog through bogs to do so!

7 Comments

  1. Susan

    I feel that I, approaching 80 years, have been supremely blessed by the hermit thrush (and no doubt his ancestors) who has sung for me all month – and for the last 30 summers, since we moved to Vermont. His music is supremely beautiful, and no matter how discouraged I might be feeling, his concert brings me back to my appreciation of life. We have wood thrushes, too, and they sing nicely, but with much repetition and predictability of phrase. I’ve heard the European nightingale, also, and he does not compare with our hermit. His songs are harmonic – and he changes keys, octaves and phrases. I can’t think of anything in nature that gives me the pleasure that the hermit brings.

    Reply
  2. Eleanor Parke

    I have recently moved to a house on a lake in a wooded area. The calls of thrushes have been music to my ears and you have captured the essence of their magic. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  3. Craig Good

    Would it be possible to use this in the soundtrack of an independent short film? We’re trying to be location-correct for a bird song that’s needed in one scene.

    Thanks.

    Reply
  4. Jennifer Dudley

    I’m thrilled to find this site! I was longing to hear my #1 favorite bird songs: The Hermit Thrush. When I go hiking in the Western Mountains of Maine, I hear the songs all the way back down the mountain hike. AND, my Mom and Step-Dad live on Hermit Thrush Rd.! I’m sending her the link.

    Thank you for all your recordings, which I have downloaded onto itunes.

    Jennifer

    Reply
  5. John Longaphy

    Hello from Nova Scotia! I just want to let you know from experience that your videos are amazing and such a great way to get the day going. I was just out investigating a Northern Cardinal nest that I have been honing in on and finally found it. Probably not much news for you but they are certainly only very local here in Nova Scotia .. I’m book marking your site and look forward to other great videos.
    Johnny

    Reply
    • Lang Elliott

      Hi there Johnny. So cardinals are already building nests up there?

      Reply
    • Sadie And Dale Mitts

      Yes, Sadie and I were also investigating the cardinal as well near the old heritage farm in Spryfield Nova Scotia
      We were convinced after a solid week of observation that we cracked the stash. A splendid bird with a very distinct vocabulary (to me anyway) and it makes me want to go hiking every day. Shouldn’t they be shadow boxing with the car mirrors soon. They are so regal that I feel so much peace when we see them happily flitting around together.

      Respectfully;
      Sadie and Dale

      Reply

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