Return Of The Wood Thrush's Song Spring has officially set in, and commentator Steve Bouser can even >hear it. Listening beyond the hum of televisions and air conditioners, he can hear the melodic song of the wood thrush. Because he knows the bird's stay in his yard is only temporary, its tenure is all the sweeter.
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Return Of The Wood Thrush's Song

In this rare scene, two thrushes meet at a tree branch. The wood thrush is known not only for its melodic song but also for its cloistered lifestyle. hide caption

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In this rare scene, two thrushes meet at a tree branch. The wood thrush is known not only for its melodic song but also for its cloistered lifestyle.

Steve Bouser is editor of The Pilot, a newspaper that serves Pinehurst and Southern Pines, N.C. He is also a playwright and an adjunct journalism lecturer at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

A minor miracle occurred in our backyard the other evening. Some people wouldn't have noticed or cared. But to my wife and me, relaxing on our screened porch after dinner, it was almost as riveting as an annunciation from a winged angel of God. Which, in a way, it was.

We had begun to wonder if we'd hear it at all this year, and for a few minutes we weren't sure it was really happening. We turned off the TV, hushed the dog, held our breath and strained our ears toward the overgrown habitat across the back of our lot.

At first, the sound was so thin and distant, so easily drowned out by the hum of a neighbor's air conditioner, that we could have been imagining it. But then, after a pause, it burst forth startlingly and breathtakingly nearer. And this time there was no mistaking that pure, sublime, liquid yodel.

It was the sound of the wood thrush! Back again -- having survived, for at least one more season, the depredations of man on its wintering grounds in the rainforests of Central America.

To us, the haunting warble of that particular migratory bird species, the lazy soundtrack of so many dappled late summer afternoons here in our beloved North Carolina, may well be the most exquisite and evocative sound in all of nature.

My idol, Henry David Thoreau, thought so. "The thrush alone declares the immortal wealth and vigor that is in the forest," he wrote. "Whenever a man hears it, he is young, and Nature is in her spring. It is a new world and a free country, and the gates of heaven are not shut against him."

Funny thing about the wood thrush -- a middle-sized brown bird with a speckled breast: You hear it, but you never see it. Like its cousin the hermit thrush, it prefers the cloistered life of the extreme recluse, content to give out its periodic, anonymous, heart-stopping call while hunkered down on a limb near the trunk of a tree, cloaked in invisibility.

As with other birds, we refer to the vocalization of the thrush as its "song" and imagine it to be an expression of joyful exuberance. It's more likely a territorial assertion -- the avian equivalent of "You kids get off my lawn!"

But how glorious these crystalline grace notes come across to human ears! Though impossible to describe, they sound a bit like somebody whistling a melodious "yoo-hoo" -- but with a repertoire of four or five rhapsodic variations. The refrain often starts and ends with a soft buzz, like a music box rewinding. If the call of the wood thrush were a substance, it would be falling droplets of molten gold. If it were a taste, honeysuckle nectar. If a name, Bianca. Or maybe Suzannah.

Past experience suggests that our backyard thrush, having announced its presence with such casual elegance, will fall silent after a few days, having either established its turf or moved on to better nesting grounds. But that's OK. We've had the privilege of hearing it once again, and Nature is in her spring, and the gates of heaven are not shut against us.