A Wood Thrush stands on one leg on a tree branch.


Haunting. Flute-like. Ethereal.

These are words commonly used to describe the song of a Wood Thrush. They’re all accurate.

I’ve been treated to daily, all-day Wood Thrush serenades for several months now. When a pair nested in my backyard, the male sang constantly while his mate built the nest. He sang less often after the eggs hatched, probably because he was out getting food for the nestlings. The constant singing began anew within days after the fledge, which happened about a month ago.

I hoped to hear a choir as the fledglings grew, assuming one or more of them are male (the females don’t share the males’ vocal talents). But I’ve since learned it can take a year or so after hatching before a Wood Thrush sings its adult song. Over time, an adult male will have more than 50 distinct songs in his repertoire.

What I love most about the Wood Thrush song is its built-in harmony. The male has an unusual syrinx, or voice box, with two sets of vocal cords. They allow the bird to sing with two voices at the same time. An article from Smithsonian’s National Zoo calls the Wood Thrush’s ee-oh-lay a ‘one-bird duet.’

Here are some clips from an hours-long concert I was treated to the other day. Be sure to watch the bird’s throat as he sings his three-part song. You will see him form the notes, beginning with a short, low utterance—most often a bup-bup-bup. Next comes the ee-oh-lay. Then you’ll hear a trill, which seems to come in a variety of pitches.

My microphone picks up the bird’s music at its point of origin. But when I’m some distance from the bird, his trills seem to come from another part of the woods. Those final notes resonate, creating the haunting, flute-like, ethereal song these birds are known for.

I wish everyone could experience this lovely, haunting music in person. If you live nearby, consider that an invitation. Typically, Wood Thrushes stay well into September before migrating.

Resources and a Related Kids’ Book

Here’s Audubon’s Wood Thrush Field Guide, which has a general overview of the bird.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac has a great Wood Thrush article, including some wonderful photos and videos.

The Smithsonian-National Zoo article I mentioned above is a terrific read that highlights its shrinking range.

Finally, here’s my kids’ book recommendation.

Written and illustrated by Annette LeBlanc Cate, this book is spot-on for kids 8-12. Many pages have the feel of a graphic novel, with people and birds talking about birdwatching. The birds’ sometimes-snarky language will have kids laughing. The information is rock-solid, explaining bird biology and habitat, and how to use observation techniques like listening and sketching to learn birding skills. At 80 pages, and divided into well-structured topics with an index, it’s perfect for perusing as opposed to reading straight through. I highly recommend this book for kids. Adults will enjoy and learn from it, too.

Image Credits: Carol Doeringer.

4 thoughts on “Ee-Oh-Lay!”

  1. I read the title as I was listening to a wood thrush call from the woods. My favorite sound of summer…except for the bobwhite quail which has disappeared from our area perhaps because of coyotes, certainly not because of habitat degradation since nothing changes around here.

    1. The wood thrush songs are my favorite summer sound, for sure. In earlier years I tended to hear it only in the evening. But now — probably because there are wood thrush kids nearby — dad is singing constantly. Such a treat!

  2. Lovely, Carol. How fortunate to experience the life cycle of this bird. My favorite bird song comes from the White Throated Sparrow. It is a much simpler song than your wood thrush but just as haunting. I first heard this plaintive song while sitting in a Canadian anchorage. I was overjoyed to hear it when we lived in Allegan as well. I think we live too far south now but I will never forget that beautiful song. Thank you for sharing yours.

    1. Carol, I’ll have to listen to recordings of the White Throated Sparrow so I’ll know what I’m hearing if the bird sings to me here. Thanks for the great hint!

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