For the Birds Radio Program: Veery
Several times every year, people call me asking about the weird and beautiful song they hear, usually near dusk, from their deck or their cabin near a wet woods. Everyone describes the sound as spiraling downward, and many people add, “like water spiraling down a drainspout or a rain barrel.” I’ve never actually heard water spiraling down either a drainspout or a rain barrel, but the description is somehow so apt that I know exactly what bird they’re hearing, a Veery.
Veeries are in the thrush family along with robins and bluebirds. This family has the distinction of having the most well-developed syrinx in the bird world. Like mammals, birds do have a larynx, but in the case of birds it’s just a minor swelling on their trachea. The larynx serves as our voice box, but birds needed something more exquisitely complex to produce their exquisitely complex songs, and the syrinx is, literally and etymologically, a bird’s song box. It’s situated right where the trachea branches into the bronchial tubes, and so is shaped rather like an upside down letter Y. Muscles on both bronchial branches allow songbirds do to something we with our pitiful larynx can’t accomplish no matter what—produce harmony with their own voice. And thrushes bring this accomplishment to a higher plane than any other birds.
If Veery songs are conspicuous and distinctive, Veeries are very tricky to actually see, apparently believing that good little birds are heard but not seen. They’re beautiful in a Melanie Hamilton sort of way, their backs a soft rusty brown, their breast softly, almost imperceptibly spotted, their big brown eyes giving them an innocent, inoffensive aspect, rather like Melanie.
It’s easy to hear how a female Veery would be attracted to the male’s ethereal song, but females also sing—their duets may help establish a strong pair bond. If most of my listeners weren’t considerably younger than me and too young to get the reference, here’s where I’d make a reference to Steve and Eydie. But it isn’t quite so simple. According to a 1956 study by Dilger, males arrive on the breeding grounds before females, and defend their territory against every other Veery, including potential mates. When a female enters a male’s territory, she first gets a hostile response. That naturally makes her flee the immediate area, but she remains within the hostile male’s territory; he may chase her, but he keeps singing the Advertising Song. Dilger points out that he’s in conflict, trying to drive a female away while encouraging her to stay on his territory with his song. Dilger doesn’t say so, but my guess is this puts the female in conflict, too—attracted by his song even as she’s trying to evade his cranky demeanor. Pair bonding finally takes place when the hostility diminishes and the male accepts the female’s presence on his territory. Thus a process that takes about 2 hours in a Doris Day-Rock Hudson movie takes about 3–4 days for a pair of Veeries.
Individual Veeries recognize one another’s voices and once a neighborhood is established in spring, they respect one another’s territorial boundaries. But they’re far less tolerant of strangers in the neighborhood. There’s probably a popular culture reference for that, too. But really, Veeries are decided NOT Melanie Hamilton, or Steve and Eydie, or Doris Day and Rock Hudson. No way could any human cultural icons sing such an ethereal song. They’re Veeries. And that’s plenty good enough.