Mention orchids, and most people think of stunning flowers. A conversation about dolphins invites comment on their intelligence. And the topic of thrushes inevitably leads to a discussion of beautiful songs.
A variety of thrushes live in our area, and almost all have incredible songs. The hermit thrush is considered by many to have the most beautiful song of any bird in North America. Take a short drive up into the forest on a May or June evening and you can judge for yourself.
My favorite is the song of the Swainson's thrush. The flute-like notes that spiral up in pitch in the fading light gave me great pleasure as I grew up in the Willamette Valley. Locally, visit the streams near Union Creek for this treat.
American robins concede little to the hermit and Swainson's thrushes. The Townsend's solitaire, another thrush, fills forest openings high in the Siskiyous with its rich and nearly endless song. You will have to travel to Europe to hear the song of another talented thrush, the nightingale.
This brings me to the western bluebird. Is there someone who will extol the virtues of the song of this thrush? Anyone? I can hear many birders asking themselves, have I ever heard a western bluebird sing? Do they even have a song?
The noted ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent wrote that he "never heard from the western bluebird's beak an utterance which deserves the name of a song." Two other noted naturalists, Grinnell and Storer, claim to have heard the song but were less than impressed.
The "song is a very simple affair, just the common call notes uttered over and over with monotonous persistence." The call note of the western bluebird is a soft, cooing sound. Pleasant but hardly noteworthy.
If you wish to hear this poor excuse for a thrush song, you will need to arise early. They sing in the cold hour before dawn in near-complete darkness. Or, so I have been told.
Birdsong serves many functions, chief among which are the attraction of a mate and defense of a territory. As a territorial advertisement, the soft notes of the western bluebird fail miserably. The call can barely be heard among the cacophony of other spring sounds. The same would seem to apply to mate attraction.
There are alternatives to singing. Visual displays involving plumage and behavior work for many species. Peacocks are showy, and cranes dance.
Among most thrushes, males and females are nearly the same in appearance. Male and female Townsend's solitaires and hermit thrushes are identical, to me at least. Male robins have a slightly darker head than the female. Most thrushes are also modestly colored. Browns of various shades figure large in their wardrobe.
Bluebirds again provide the exception in the family. Male bluebirds are bright and showy, and females are quite drab. Unless you catch the slight flash of blue in the wings and tail of the female, you could easily mistake it for some other bird.
Among thrushes at least, there appears to be a trade-off. The choice is either a fine voice or fine clothes. Apparently you can't have both. For the record, both mountain and eastern bluebirds have more of a song than our western bluebird, but not much more.
Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.