Song of Wonder – The Veery

“The song of the Veery is one of the most magical and exquisite in the bird world. It is an ethereal downward spiral of flutey notes with an echoing, ventriloquial quality”. – Frank Chapman, author of Bird Life (1897)

Often, it’s the flashy or well-known birds that get a lot of attention. Think Bald Eagle, majestic and symbol of America or Northern Cardinal, the very popular bright red bird that is unmistakable. So popular it’s the state bird of Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia. But what about some of the more furtive and drab members of the avian family?

The Veery, a small, dull brown, somewhat secretive member of the thrush family, was one of Rachel Carson’s favorites. She and her close friend Dorothy Freeman loved this little bird for its reedy, ethereal song. Rachel built a summer cottage on the edge of a cliff on a little island called Southport on the coast of Maine. It was here that she met Dorothy. They shared a great love of the natural world and one species of bird in particular, the Veery. Visually quite plain, it was its song that mattered to them. In letters they exchanged, both wrote of this bird and how they missed hearing it with each other.

“First–in answer to your answer to my veery letter–I thought the whole episode pretty starry, beginning with the fact that, as I learned the other day, while I was in the Rock Creek Park listening to veeries and wishing for you, you were walking along your road listening to wood thrushes and wishing for me!”

– Rachel Carson, letter to Dorothy Freeman, June 5, 1954

The Veery’s name was inspired by the song males use when defending territory. The song is a series of variations on “veer” that resonates as if swirling around in a metal pipe as it slowly descends in pitch.

The Veery’s complex song is a series of liquid notes that spiral down the musical scale. In fact, their song sounds like the bird is producing two notes at the same time. And it actually is! The Veery sings a duet with itself.

This two-part song is a created by air flowing from its lungs through a divided voice box. They control each note separately with several pairs of internal and external muscles.

The Veery is a small forest thrush that gets its name from the cascade of “veer” notes that make up its song. They can usually be heard at dusk and dawn in summer in the damp northern woods. Veeries are a warm brown above, with delicate spots on the throat, spending much of their time hopping through forest understory foraging for fruit and insects.

Migration studies using radio telemetry show that the Veery can fly up to 160 mi in one night, and can fly at altitudes above 1.2 mi. They migrate long distances and often flap their wings continuously throughout the entire night’s flight.

The Veery’s scientific name Catharus fuscescens reflects its vocal prowess as well as its plumage coloring. Catharus comes from the Greek katharos, for “pure”—probably a reference to the quality of its song. Fuscescens, from the Latin fuscus, means “dusky.”

Even better, listening to a Veery will make you feel better! According to a study published in BioScience, listening to birds actually lifts people’s spirits and mental well-being. Researchers at King’s College London developed a smartphone app called Urban Mind to monitor how a person’s exposure to birdsong, trees, and sky within cities affects their mental wellbeing.

The findings indicated both immediate associations between natural areas and mental wellbeing. A general upswing in mood, usually lasting for hours was reported when study participants were near birds and natural environments.

There are a number of reasons birdsong is so effective at reducing stress and boosting happiness. The most compelling may be that our early ancestors learned that when birds are singing it meant all is right with the world, so they could relax.

Rachel Carson would undoubtedly agree!

Ross A. FeldnerRCC Board Member

Publications and Web Consultant, Ross FeldnerRoss Feldner is the lead, with Bob Musil, of the RCC Bird Watch and Wonder Program. Ross is a life-long birder and photographer who is the editor of the Friends of Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge newsletter. Ross also serves as a guide at the Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge, a frequent birding spot for Rachel Carson who first learned about the health effects of DDT at the laboratory there. He is also the owner/art director of New Age Graphics, a full-service graphic design firm in Wheaton, MD.

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