J. Wm. Lloyd, et al., “The Whisper Song of the Catbird” (1911)

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Back in 2010, I released this collection of articles from Bird Lore, featuring anarchist or “free socialist” J. William Lloyd, in a very limited hand-bound edition, the first of the hardcover editions from Corvus Editions. It occupies a special place, for me at least, in the development of the publishing project and, now that a decent interval has passed and the print-on-demand phase of the Corvus project is underway, I’ll probably finally pursue a long-held goal of assembling a larger collection of anarchists’ observations of natural history, with these articles as a nucleus. For now, however, it is just fun to finally share them here.

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The Whisper Song of the Catbird

I wonder if any of the readers of Bird-Lore have noticed what I have called the ‘whisper-song’ of the Catbird, occurring in the fall, a little before the time of autumn migration.

I first observed this fact in 1908, and I have this record in my journal:

“September 14, 1908.—Yesterday, while a visitor was mending his automobile down near the woodpile, I noticed the low singing of a bird, apparently very close and behind me, in some tall weeds between the grape-vines and the woodpile. Today I heard it again, and thought it a Catbird’s voice. After repeated trials, I at last located the singer. He was a Catbird, not over four or five feet from me, sitting trustfully on a stick among the weeds, quite unconcerned, and singing in such a low, fine voice that I could only just hear him. The performance was like that of a bird in a reverie—like the ghost of a thought of a song. His throat merely trembled, and occasionally the bill parted just a trifle. Yet his song seemed the full repertoire of the Catbird, including, during the time I listened, two faint mews. I listened some five minutes, and it kept up very steadily. He seemed no more disturbed by my presence than he had been the day before, when an automobile and six or eight people, talking and laughing, were within ten feet of him. I suspect this bird was one of my favorite singers of the summer. Altogether, this was a rich experience.”

On September 17, 1910, I made this record:

“The Catbird sings again his dreamy, ghost-like song among the weeds of the old woodpile, back of the grapevines.”

I have no further records in my journal, but almost every autumn I have heard the whispering song, and this September (1914) a Catbird, perhaps the same, perhaps another, has been singing in some sumach and hazel bushes back of my son’s sleeping-porch; possibly because the former haunt of weeds and woodpile has been cleared away. This time the singer seems more nervous and suspicious, mews oftener, docs not so placidly permit observation, and sings slightly louder; but, on the whole, the performance is the same.

What I should like to ask the editors and readers of Bird-lore is this question: Have other observers noticed this trait in the Catbird, or am I to suppose this a trick of my own particular bird? I suspect that all Catbirds do it and, not only that, but that many other birds also indulge, at this season of the year, in whisper or reverie songs, in memory, as it were, of departed summer joys. At any rate, a Chcwink has been singing, in much the same voice and mood, lately, in the same hazel and sumach clump, and my daughter-in-law reports hearing a Wren in our lane whispering a song.

I should be grateful to learn what others may know on this point.

—J. William Lloyd, Westfield, N. J.

The ‘Whisper’ Songs of Birds

A note by Mr. J. William Lloyd, on ‘The Whisper Song of the Catbird,’ published in Bird-lore for December, 1914 (Vol. XVI, p. 446), has brought from our readers a number of observations on this type of singing, which we publish below. As these notes indicate, whisper singing is not confined to certain individuals or certain species, but is an expression of a physiological condition.

In the fall, song is not inspired by the ardor of the mating season, and it is exceptional to hear the full-voiced utterance of spring. In the spring the full development of a bird’s song may be reached gradually. It doubtless keeps pace with the physiological development of the bird, and it is also controlled by temperature.

Writing these lines on February 27, at Ormond Beach, Florida, I have been interested to observe here the close relation between temperature and the singing of the Mockingbird. This bird began to sing a ‘song’ whisper the first week of the month. Since that date, the character of the songs heard is closely dependent on the temperature. With the mercury registering from 46° to 50° at 7.30 A.m., only whisper songs from the shelter of the undergrowth are heard. It is not until the thermometer reads 60° that one hears the full-voiced, musical medley of this famous songster.—F. M. C.

It was with the deepest interest that I read J. William Lloyd’s account of the ‘whisper song’ of the Catbird, as I had a similar experience in September, 1914.

In one of the localities where I am accustomed to hunt for birds, there is a tangle of alders and vines, which is a favorite haunt of Catbirds during the Mimmer months, and in which they nest.

On September 16, I saw some of those birds perched on the top of an alder, and on the next day, as I was passing the thicket, my attention was arrested by hearing a Catbird singing in the way that Mr. Lloyd so clearly describes, with the exception that I heard no mewing sounds. Apparently, the bird was singing for his own entertainment, as his song continued for some moments; there was as great a variety of notes as in the louder song, but never before did I listen to a melody so soft and sweet. It was a most delightful performance and gave me great pleasure.

Two days later I heard the fluting of the bird in the same place, but the song was of briefer duration.

On both occasions the singer was very near, but was invisible, although I peered into the thick leafage in hopes to obtain a glimpse of him.—Sara Chandler Eastman, Portland, Maine.

In answer to Mr. Lloyd’s query in Bird-lore on ‘Whisper Songs,’ I might give my experience. Some time ago we received from a bird fancier a Central American species of Planeslicus. The bird had been in captivity for some two or three years. We kept him in a fair-sized cage for some four months before he died from brief exposure or draft from an open door during the winter. He sang during the day much like P. migratorius, but so low that one would have to be within a few feet from him to get the benefit of the song. The bird’s attitude was crouched low on a perch, feathers very slightly fluffed out, bill slightly raised, neck drawn in, and eyes not wide awake. He was always aware of what was going on about him during his singing. The family said he was singing in his sleep. One person suggested that he was dreaming of his southern home. Thus the pose was characteristic of the song. I don’t remember ever hearing him sing full-voiced.—Arthur Jacot, Monroe, Conn.

In the November and December Bird-Lore, page 446, J. W. Lloyd asks for observations on the whisper song of the Catbird. We can assure him that this was not a trick of his particular bird, but is more or less a characteristic of them in general, and his supposition is also correct, that other species indulge in this ‘reverie song’ during the autumn migrations. Our winter birds are prone to voice their joy, or perhaps sorrow, in this song. We have often heard the Cardinal, Towhee, Song and Tree Sparrows, in the early and midwinter, especially during long-continued cold.

The ‘Hallelujah chorus’ that we hear in the spring comes from the top twigs of the thickets and woods; but this minor strain—-and it seems to us as one of sorrow—comes from the cover of the dead weeds and brambles, and is given so softly at times that it can be heard but a few feet away.

There must be some climatic or physiological cause for this song, at which we can only make a guess.—Chas. R. Wallace, Delaware, Ohio.

It is with a great deal of interest that I note what Mr. J. Wm. Lloyd says of the ‘whisper song’ of the Catbird, in the December (1914) Bird-lore (p. 446).

I have observed the same performance upon one occasion, Oct, 7, 1914, when an individual was engaged in singing a typical song, but so softly as to be almost inaudible at a distance exceeding twenty-five feet. The characteristic call-note was also given in the same soft manner. The song period for the species closed July 27, and, October 7 constitutes the latest date of observation.

I have observed several other species engaged in singing the whisper song. September 19, 1913, I noted a Brown Thrasher singing a song characteristic in every way except that it was executed so softly as to be audible only at a short distance. At different times I have noted the Yellow-throated, Red-eyed and Warbling Vireos also the Song Sparrow and Cardinal indulge in the ‘whisper song.’

It is possible this interesting and apparently overlooked phase of bird music is not uncommon, but only the sharpest ears are tuned to catch the soft strain. Certainly, it is not confined to the above species.—Scott G. Harry, Wooster, Ohio.

I should like to add to Mr. Lloyd’s notes on the ‘Whisper Song of the Catbird,’ that I have heard this song

My most noteworthy experience of the kind, however, was with a Brown Thrasher soon after the spring arrival. He did not perch on the highest point of the tallest tree, as he does for his wonderful sunset song, but, hiding in a shrubby growth, he poured forth in exquisite sotto voice his whole repertoire of phrases.

It was one of the nature expisodes that make us forget everything but the ideal side.

Some Thrushes also sing in an undertone at times. The Robin does it, and in spring migration I have heard both the Gray-cheeked and Olive-backed Thrushes sing short songs in this manner.—Lucy V. Baxter Coffin, Chicago, Illinois.

In answer to J. William Lloyd’s inquiry about the ‘whisper songs’ of birds, I have the following to offer: In my back yard stands an apple tree whose wide-spreading branches overhang the back doorsteps, and in which a pair of Catbirds have made their home for the past four years. Last fall I had been watching the Catbirds closely in order to know the exact day of their departure for the South. One afternoon, while seated on the doorstep watching the pair as they sat perfectly still on a limb only a few feet above me, I became suddenly aware that the male was singing. The song was so soft as to be almost inaudible, even at a distance of eight or ten feet. I have never heard sweeter music from a bird. So soft, so sweet, and so full of pathos, it seemed to be я meditation of the joys of the past summer, mingled with the sorrow he felt at leaving this home that had been filled with so much love and happiness.

I heard this whisper song almost every day following, until one morning near the middle of October, on going out into the back yard, I found that my Catbirds were gone.—W. E. Gray, Hopkinsville, Ky.

A recent number of Bird-lore contained an article ‘The Whisper Song of the Catbird’ in which the author asks if others have had similar experiences in hearing the whisper song of this species. I have not heard the Catbird deliver such a song, but the description therein given fits very well the vocal performances of the Brown Thrashers, as we hear them almost every year.

In my notes I find mention made of such singing on seventeen days within six years. The earliest date was that of August 11, the latest was September 23. which was the last day a Brown Thrasher was seen here that year (1907). For two years the latest date for this singing was September 21, after which the species was seen only a few days.

These almost inaudible songs are rendered while the bird sits in the dense foliage of a snowball bush, not more then ten or fifteen feet from the house; yet so low is the singing, it frequently would escape my defective hearing if my attention were not called to it by my sister.

Eight days out of the recorded seventeen were in August Sometimes the singing on these August days was of the very low- voiced type, but at other times it was quite noticeably louder. In one of my notes an estimate was made that the song lasted fully five minutes.—Althea R. Sherman, Rational, Iowa.

Mr. J. Wm. Lloyd has noticed the fall ‘whisper song’ of the Catbird. Perhaps he and others would be interested to know that the California Blue Jay whispers a song which I have never heard him sing aloud. Indeed, he is not famous as a singer. But twice during the past fall (September, 1914) I heard and saw him whispering a real song, one that compares favorably with those of the Black-headed Grosbeak or the California Thrasher.—Mrs. Amelia Saxhorn Allen, Berkeley, California.

About thirteen years ago, I was living at a country place, near Seattle, Washington, where much of the native forest had been preserved. One afternoon, while walking along a road through the timber, I saw a Russet-backed Thrush sitting on a limb of an alder tree about ten feet from the ground, singing with full voice his enchanting song. When he saw me, he dropped his voice to a far, sweet murmur, repeating the song over and over, watching me while I stood rooted to the spot. Two young people approached, total strangers to me. I spoke rather intensely: “Stop, please, and look! listen to that Thrush!” They obligingly stood still, evidently impressed and exclaimed “How beautiful!” Perhaps thinking there were too many listeners, the bird flew away.

Again, and on this very morning, Feb. 10, 1915, ‘our Woodpeckers’ a pair of Red-shafted Flickers, visited us at 2838 North Broadway, in Seattle, as they have many times during the last two or three years. I was awakened very early by a resounding tattoo on the northwest corner of the roof; fortissimo it was given, alternated with a whispered vocal performance; ‘Yucka! Yucka! Yucka!’ They said very softly, in marked contrast to their usual ringing, ear-piercing call. Quite often they rap loudly on the tin coping on the balcony, making a tremendous racket, but always whisper their ‘song.’—E. Inez Denny, Seattle, Washington.

The Poetic Melancholy of the Birds

I should like to express, through the pages of Bird-lore, my gratitude and appreciation of the unexpectedly warm and kind response so many have made to my query concerning the whisper-songs of birds, besides the word of the editor and the nine letters given in March-April Bird-lore, several letters have come to me personally.

My first letter was from Mrs. Jessie Braman Daggett, a bird-impersonator of La Grange, Ill., who most eloquently confirmed my observations as matched by her own, and added that she had autumn records of the whisper-songs of the following birds: White-throated and White-crowned Sparrows, Towhee, Rose- breasted Grosbeak, Blue Jay, and Cardinal.

Mrs. May S. Danner, of Canton, Ohio, had heard, in the latter part of September, 1913, a Catbird sing in a bush near her, in her city yard, a song that seemed the counterpart of the one I described, except no mews, sung, she writes, with “partly closed bill.”

On September n, 1914. Mrs. W. H. Peek, of Kalamazoo, Mich., while standing waiting outside of her automobile, in a gentle rain, near a roadside thicket, heard a Catbird’s song, “very sweet and subdued,” within the thicket. The bird came out to the edge to investigate, but made no protest, did not sing there, but went back out of sight and softly sang over all his notes. She also reports having heard Catbirds sing in much the same tone and manner their whole repertoire on moonlight nights in town, at midnight, or sometimes all night, during the nesting-season.

Paul Dean, of Clarkesville, Texas, while driving his cows to pasture one morning in September, 1913, heard the ‘wee song’ of a Mockingbird, in a nearby haw bush, “where he was huddled up like he was cold. There was a slight quivering in his throat, otherwise there was no visible movement. . . . The song resembled that usually sung by the Mockingbird, differing only in volume, which made it all the sweeter.”

Rufus Stanley, director of the Omega Boys Club, of Elmira, N. Y., has heard the Catbird’s ‘ghost song’ several times in the spring, the first time in 1900. Being a little doubtful about this, I wrote to Mr. Stanley and received the following reply: “The song I heard in the spring was audible only about five or six feet, and seemed the same as one I heard last summer from about the same distance. Both of them, and others that I have heard, were like the ‘whispered reverie’ you mention.”

It appears, in summing up this interesting evidence, that almost any bird may indulge in a whisper-song, but that Catbirds, Thrashers and Mockers, are the most prone to the habit, the Catbird in the lead; and that September is the month of most probable occurrence, though whisper-songs may be heard in summer, spring, or winter.

Mr. Chapman’s explanation of the effect of low temperature in checking song-expression throws a flood of light on the matter; yet I think those who feel that sorrow may be a psychological cause can say much for their theory also.

September is not a very cold month anywhere, and here, in New Jersey, is often quite hot in daytimes. In the typical cases I cited, I am certain the birds were not cold. The time was early afternoon and the days warm. Besides, it is very significant to me that the birds usually hide away to sing their whisper- songs in deep and shaded thickets. They would not do this if they were cold. Those who have witnessed the whisper-song of autumn will, I am sure, agree that the expression of the bird is not that of chill, but of reverie or tender melancholy, as Mr. Jacot puts it, “singing in his sleep.” In the few instances of spring, I think it is very likely that chill subdues the song, but the autumn whisper, I feel sure, is the voice of poetic melancholy. If the joy of spring, of mating and nesting, makes the bird burst into irrepressible and glorious melody, why should not the memories of these departed joys, in the fall, produce a subdued song of pensive reminiscence?

For myself, I have no doubt of it. Animals certainly have memories and good ones—that is scientific, and I do not consider it unscientific to assert that the bird has the spirit and feeling of a poet. I believe that Arthur Jacot’s Planeslicus really was “dreaming of his southern home.”

Doubtless other emotions or troubles beside memories of departed summer joys may make individual birds sing low or sadly. Many birds, when singing, if they find themselves observed, check and soften their songs; but this is embarrassment or caution, and very different from the true reverie-whisper, which is not merely a low song, but clearly the performance of a lonely bird for his own secret comforting, or to express a mood of tender melancholy.

—J. William Lloyd, Westfield, N. J.

[We venture to believe that Mr. Lloyd attributes to birds emotions which are more human than bird-like. Song is primarily a secondary sexual character, and its full manifestation is closely associated with and, in a large measure dependent on, certain physiological developments incident to the nesting-season.

With one-brooded birds song wanes, as, with the advance of the season, the mating period is succeeded by family cares, which arouse new activities on the part of the parents. With two- or three- brooded birds a renewal of song accompanies the preparations for a second family, and the song season is correspondingly prolonged.

That full-voiced singing should be resumed in the fall, when the true function of song does not exist and the conditions which stimulate it are wanting, is, of course, not to be expected; but that the faint songs sometimes heard at this season voice a poetic melancholy on the part of the singer is, we fear, a poetic conception.—Ed.]


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Independent scholar, translator and archivist.