Wednesday, February 3, 2016

A Bird in the Hand

Pacific Wren (formerly Winter Wren)
In recent weeks I've had the privilege of going behind the scenes at a museum to look at birds close-up in the form of study skins.

Poring over stuffed, dead birds might not sound like everybody's idea of a good time, but for birders it offers an excellent opportunity to observe details and compare and contrast species in a way you never get to do in the field, where birds often appear as silhouetted blobs on a brightly lit sky, a streaky dash amid branches, or a tiny speck beyond the reach of your binoculars.

A study skin is exactly what it sounds like: a bird skin complete with feathers, beak, and legs that's been stripped of all flesh and stuffed so that it can be measured and examined. The stuffing doesn't attempt to recreate the bird's form in life, as taxidermy does.

(For more information about preparing study skins, as well as some points of view on collecting birds, check out this ebird page.)

Sometimes wings are prepared separately from the study skins so they can be displayed fanned out, making individual flight feathers easy to see. A study skin wouldn't last very long if its wings were constantly being unfolded. The wings are actually threaded in place to prevent them from being spread.

A museum's collection of study skins includes the remains of many birds who were found dead and donated for preparation. (I once had a bushtit stored in my freezer for years after finding it newly dead on the sidewalk outside my house with this aim in mind.)

It also includes birds deliberately collected for study, though unlike the overzealous collectors in Audubon's time, today's scientists take legal and ethical considerations into account.

Handling and studying the skins evokes many feelings: wistfulness and a twinge of sadness at the stillness of the birds and the brevity and evanescence of life; humility at the connection between now and then, as you hold a tiny bird collected by someone who lived a century before you; and awe at the magnificent beauty and variety of species.

Northern Flicker's exuberantly spotted breast

The impressive beak of an Evening Grosbeak
The comets and stars on a Common Loon's back
The useful field mark, the "butterbutt," of a Yellow-Rumped Warbler
The tropical splendor of an American Redstart
The odd, waxy tips on the secondary flight feathers of a Cedar Waxwing
A MacGillivray's Warbler collected in 1894. Holding it makes you pause
and reflect on both this little scrap of life that fluttered long before you
were born and the existence of the person who carefully penned
the information on its tag.
Orange-crowned Warbler. The study skins of smaller birds really
demonstrate how much of a bird's volume consists of the life pulsing
in it. This is particularly true of the wrens, which resemble empty pen
cartridges in the drawer but appear much larger in life when they're
full of spunk and fury and scolding you from a branch.
The formidable talons of a raptor (I believe they belong to a Great Horned Owl).


Friday, January 22, 2016

Hello, Kitties: The Paws That Refreshes

*Warning: Here be cat puns. If you cannot make dreadful, labored, and timeworn puns in an article about a cat cafe, when can you?

There's a new kit in town: it's Seattle's first cat cafe, Seattle Meowtropolitan, and it's located in Wallingford kittycorner to Archie McPhee's.

I met two friends there for coffee on a rainy Thursday afternoon.

Since moving to the suburbs, meeting friends for coffee is a rare event, unlike the reflex reaction automatic default it was in the city, where I couldn't step outside without tripping over the threshold of a coffee shop.

So I would probably have driven for much more than an hour to meet friends for coffee even if the cafe was boasting a playroom full of death adders.

At Seattle Meowtropolitan, ten dollars buys you a tasty coffee drink of your choice and 50 minutes in the cat room, which houses a dozen or more cats at a time.

I ordered a Meowca. I didn't ask for an extra chat, but I'm sure you could. The purristas were very friendly.



(Reservations must be made in advance because the number of humans is limited, and no one under age 8 is allowed in the cat room. However, you can also drop in to have coffee in the shop and just gaze through the window at the cats.)

There is a sign on the door to the cat room explaining the byclaws of the establishment and that you enter it knowing that you will encounter...cats. This would seem self-evident, but remember, this is America, land of litigation. You can't be too careful.

In the cat room, there are felines, nothing more than felines. And loads of cat toys. And wonderful structures for cats to climb, explore, and snooze on.

There are a few tables and benches for both humans and cats. We pussyfooted around the room, careful not to step on tails or toys, and visited kitties of all stripes and no stripes.

The cats come from a local shelter, and most are adoptable (there are a few resident cats). It's a great strategy for showcasing cats' individual qualities--the cats at Seattle Meowtropolitan were content and very much at ease.

If I didn't have two easily outraged cats and a boisterous dog at home, I'd probably have come home with this elderly orange tabby, who was grateful for a neck rub and rolled sideways to get a belly rub. Its back felt like a craggy mountain range beneath its thick fur, and it's nice to know this kitty will enjoy a pleasant retirement lounging on a sheepskin and basking in attention.



Some cats, like this big gray sleeping at head height, were not in the mood to have their naps interrupted, but they didn't get all fussed about it--they just gave you That Look.



The youngest cat, a cute little gray girl with white paws, was exhausted after a hard morning of playing.


An attractively marked calico exhibited an obsession with burrowing into piles of jackets and snuggling among them.

Another young cat preferred to do battle from a high perch.



This orange tabby knew how to sit on command and offer up either his left or right paw when asked. He was also clever enough to do whatever he pleased to get a treat when the treat-provider wasn't the cat-room employee.



The cats have plenty of places to escape from human attention so they don't get overwhelmed. There are boxes...



...and an off-limits "cats only" area in the back.



You can ponder the world according to cats in the bathroom...



...and there are also delectable treats to purchase in the cafe (you don't have to sit on command or raise your right paw to acquire them, though it would be polite if you refrained from jumping on the table to eat them).


We had a purr-fectly lovely time, of course, and it's definitely one of Seattle's most a-mews-ing coffee shops. And I'm not kitten around. I'm sure Abyssnian some friends there again.














Friday, January 1, 2016

First Bird of the Year 2016: Chestnut-Backed Chickadee

Photo from Wiki Commons
A birder in Australia once started her new year with a sighting of a wedge-tailed eagle eating a straw-necked ibis.

If I were her, I'd definitely choose the eagle as my official first sighting, and not only because the general rules of birding mandate that the birds you count on your life list must be alive, but because the First Bird of the Year is supposed to augur the sort of year you're going to have.

In that regard, this sighting of a straw-necked ibis would not seem to bode well.

Living in a suburban neighborhood as I do, my First Bird is never going to be as dramatic a species as a wedge-tailed eagle. I figured that on this frosty January 1 it would be one of the busy birds attacking our feeders, and today that bird was the chestnut-backed chickadee--a pert little bird whose cheerful, busy ways make it the very incarnation of all those New Year's resolutions about making better use of one's time and getting things done.

Chestnut-backed chickadee at our feeder, winter 2013
"Our" chestnut-backed chickadees spend these chilly days diving down from the top of the plum tree to the feeder, plucking out sunflower seeds, and then swooping away to cache them in crevices and under bits of bark. This behavior makes them highly appropriate creatures to set the tone for our upcoming year, in which we must practice austerity in anticipation of paying for the Resident Teen's post-high-school education and wishing that, like the chickadee, we'd socked away a lot more in previous years...

Chestnut-backed chickadees are West Coast birds that favor old, wet forests with lots of Sitka spruce and other conifers, but like their relatives the black-capped chickadees they're also at home in rural and suburban gardens.

Their range overlaps with that of the widespread black-capped, but where they occur together, they coexist nicely because they occupy different niches: chestnut-backed chickadees typically scour the upper branches of conifers for insects, and the black-capped chickadees prefer to glean the lower branches and favor oaks over conifers.

The two species don't even bicker at the feeder--they're happy to take turns depleting the seed supply, and both dart in and out without fussing about the finches, towhees, and sparrows also thronging the banquet.

Ornithologists named the bird for its rich, chestnut feathers, but chickadees named themselves with their distinctive "chick-a-dee-dee-dee" call. The number of "dees" varies--a truly alarmed chickadee may tack on quite a few to its call when it wants other birds to join in mobbing a perched raptor or a land-based predator such as a cat. One scientist counted 23 extra "dees" in a chickadee's call when it detected a perched pygmy-owl.

Alas, poor chestnut-backed chickadee! In many books, its vocal abilities are frequently compared, somewhat unfavorably, to the  black-capped's.

Black-capped chickadee (left) and chestnut-backed chickadee (right) at our feeder

A 1968 Seattle Audubon Society guidebook says this species produces "nasal notes," a "harsh check check chickadee" and a "more nasal pip-durr-durr." (Imagine if they'd called this species a pipdurrdurr; how fun would that be?)

National Geographic Complete Birds of North America says the chestnut-backed's call is "a hoarse, high-pitched, rapid sik-zee-zee or just zee-zee." 

In The National Audubon Society Field Guide to Western Birds, it's said to utter "a squeaky chick-a-dee, somewhat shriller and faster than that of other chickadees" and often "simply utters a thin tsee-deee and thin lisping notes."

And Sibley adds that its typical call consists of "high buzzy notes with lower nasal husky notes tsidi-tsidi-tsidi-cheer-cheer or weaker tsity ti jee jee."

Thin, nasal, squeaky, hoarse, weak, high-pitched, shrill...how long could you listen to a chestnut-backed chickadee chattering away with you in a coffee shop? (That's if you could put up with it hanging upside down half the time.)

Chestnut-backed chickadee at our feeder
But some writers were onto this nefarious Black-Capped Chickadees Set the Standard thing long ago. Ornithologist William Dawson, in his 1923 work Birds of California, pointed out that many authors wrote descriptions of the chestnut-backed chickadee's behavior that were entirely extrapolated from that of the black-capped.

He acknowledged that the chestnut-backed was "neither quite so lively nor so noisy as his giddy eastern cousin" but also that it was "one of the daintiest and most alluring of the dwellers in the redwoods," calling them "busy little midgets" and admiring "what a merry war they wage on beetle and nit." To his ears, the little birds trilled sweetee and a beakful of a phrase he rendered as a rather Croatian-looking kechesawick. He also noted that they uttered chickadee as kissadee, "the latter given so caressingly that you want to pinch the little darling."

John James Audubon didn't have much to say about the chestnut-backed chickadee, basing his account of the chickadee genus primarily on the black-capped, though he did paint a lively and charming pair of the birds. He called this species the chestnut-backed titmouse.

Titmouse is basically the Old World word for a chickadee, springing from an ancient Anglo-Saxon word tit (meaning something very small--stop that giggling, now) and another equally old word, mase (which also meant "tiny" or even "small bird, depending on the source).

The bird-word connection extends even into punctuation in an essay by one of the writers who toiled to produce the massive tome Birds of America, published in 1936 by the University Society with lots of assistance from Audubon Society and Cornell experts. In that work, chestnut-backed chickadees are depicted as "feathered interrogation points...interviewing and questioning every passer-by."

Speaking of interrogation, I think our chickadees are demanding more sunflower seeds, if the gimlet stares they're lasering through my office window are any indication....














Thursday, November 5, 2015

Feathers, Kids, and a Dose of Humility

Getting lost while driving in strange places is one of my biggest fears. Never mind that the strange place may be just the local hamlet of Kirkland; I could make a wrong turn and be unable to correct it quickly because of an angry driver tailgating me, and before you know it, I would be on The Highway With No Exits Until Bucktail, Nebraska!

So I wasn't sure I wanted to budge out of my house one Thursday evening a few weeks ago.

Plus, it was dark. And raining.

Nevertheless, I decided to shake off my slothfulness and actually drive somewhere after dinner, because it isn't every day that the author of one of your favorite books is speaking practically in your backyard, unless you happen to live next door to him or her and he or she is asking you to please come get your dog out of their chicken coop.

Reader, you will be glad to hear that I made it safely to my destination in Kirkland and even found parking. The event I attended was hosted by the Eastside Audubon Society and featured biologist Thor Hanson, author of the smashing book Feathers and the newly published The Triumph of Seeds.

Feathers is the kind of natural-history book I love best--one that sweeps together a multitude of fascinating facts as well as anecdotes and snippets of cultural as well as natural history and compels you with the same narrative drive that a good novel does. 

I pretty much expected that I'd learn more about feathers and possibly seeds that evening, which of course would've been wonderful, but just like the aforementioned Feathers, the author's discussion ranged across topics and lit on many subjects I hold dear: writing, kids, everyday wonders, and the instinctive affinity for the natural world that every child is born with and that can blossom or wither as the child grows.

I could natter on for ages about any of these topics but I'll stick with one of the anecdotes Hanson shared, a little story in which a child takes you down a peg or two without intending to do so and leaves you realizing that even if you think you're fairly humble, you're still capable of fluffing up your feathers and strutting a bit.

In the author's story, he was at a local shop in their very small town with his young son, where they ran into a little girl from their preschool. In the shop's window was a poster with the author's photo on it, announcing the date of an upcoming presentation. The little girl gawped at the author, looked at the poster, looked back at the author, then back at the poster, clearly linking the two and seemingly speechless. "Is that you?" she finally asked. Yes, came the reply. 

How could one not feel a bit chuffed at this bit of recognition? And then came the flattening reaction: the little girl studied the author, and then the photo, and finally asked, "Do you wear the same sweater every day?" 

(Note to self: borrow a sweater when the day comes that I actually get an author photo taken. And return it to the owner immediately.)

My dad had a similar experience once upon a time. He was an aeronautical engineer with many interests and loved nothing more than a wide-ranging conversation. One summer day, he was at a company picnic, and a little boy fell into chatting with him. Talk turned to jets and airplane design. Dad warmed to his topic as the boy stared at him, entranced. How wonderful to have such an appreciative audience! The boy was practically slack-jawed with fascination.

Then, without warning, the boy sped off and ran to his own father. He pointed back at my dad. "Papa! Papa!" he cried. "Look! Look! That man is all covered with little dots!"

It is quite true that auburn-haired Dad was liberally speckled with reddish freckles, which were on glorious display in short sleeves on that summer day. "Well," said Dad at this point, "that put me in my place."

Carol Burnett knew this feeling well; on her show back in the 1970s, she told a story about sitting on her young daughter's bed, talking to her earnestly--longer than she'd intended, as the child's rapt face and unblinking gaze encouraged her to continue. Satisfied, Burnett smiled lovingly at her daughter, waiting for a reaction. She didn't expect it to be the statement, "Wow. You sure have a lot of teeth."

I don't recall a time when anybody young or old hung on my every word, but there was a day when I gave a little presentation about writing books to a small group of kids in my daughter's elementary school.

Most of them were inattentive, but one boy was riveted. I turned the pages of one of my published books and warbled on about the writing of books for his benefit. When I asked if anyone had any questions, his hand shot up. That's when I learned the real source of his fascination: "How did you write all those words so perfectly in the book?" 

By which of course he didn't mean my deft word selection, but actually I would be very happy to see that as a review on Amazon. Hope is, after all, the thing with feathers.*

*A statement that I can no longer make without thinking of Woody Allen's reaction: “How wrong Emily Dickinson was! Hope is not 'the thing with feathers.' The thing with feathers has turned out to be my nephew. I must take him to a specialist in Zurich.”












Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Race Is to the Swifts

In February and March, people visit San Juan Capistrano in hope of seeing the return of cliff swallows to their nests beneath the eaves of old mission buildings. March is also when folks await the return of buzzards (turkey vultures) to Hinckley, Ohio.

And every summer night, hundreds of people gather to watch more than a million Mexican free-tailed bats pour out from under a bridge in Austin, Texas.

But if you've missed these annual animal aggregations, never fear. Because now is when Vaux's swifts are streaming south for the winter, pausing to rest and feed in the vicinity of Monroe, Washington--and when people flock to an old chimney to watch the little birds plunge into it at night.

Vaux's swifts, often described as "flying cigars," are North America's smallest swifts at barely 4.5 inches in length. They spend spring and summer in western North America, primarily in coastal states and Mexico, ranging as far north as southern Alaska . Then they skip out on us to spend winter in warm, sunny central America. Clever birds.

"Wait a sec," says you. "What was that bit about the chimney?"

Yes, it's true, Santa isn't the only organism that plummets down chimneys on a predictable schedule. Vaux's swifts nest in cavities, in hollow trees, and chimneys. During migration, they cram into trees and chimneys by the hundreds and thousands in order to keep warm--and safe from predators--at night.

Photo from Washington Dept. of Wildlife
They cling to vertical surfaces with sharp-clawed toes. Their short legs and feet are completely unsuitable for walking on the ground and not much use for perching, either.

When they're not stuck upright as if held in place by Velcro, they're flying. Vaux's swifts do nearly everything on the wing--courting, mating, feeding by snapping up insects in midair, and drinking by swooping over water and scooping up a beakful. They even gather nesting material while in flight.

In Monroe, the birds swarm into an old, unused chimney that's part of the Frank Wagner Elementary School. The chimney is 31 feet tall with an opening that measures four square feet. As many as 21,000 swifts funnel into it in a matter of minutes. Once inside, each bird jostles to find a holdfast. They settle into place, overlapping like shingles on a roof.

We visited the swifts in September 2014, arriving early to enjoy a feast of spaghetti and apple crisp. (A swift eats about 20,000 insects in a day, so we didn't save any for the birds.) Kids pitched beanbag swifts into a cardboard chimney. People wandered about wearing headbands adorned with paper swifts bobbing on pipe-cleaner posts. An Audubon table lined with stuffed remains of various bird species attracted a small crowd.

Looking at the fragile form of the Vaux's swift, you couldn't help but marvel at its diminutive size and realize just how much of a live bird consists of flurry, fluff, and motion.

Early-birds fluttered near the chimney as evening advanced. The sky darkened, and the swifts' numbers grew. They looked like bats as they flickered through the air.

Darker and darker grew the sky, faster and faster whirled the birds. And then, as if at a signal, they began dropping into the chimney. Each bird dove at the opening, braking its fast forward motion to plummet in tail-first.

So many birds! It was as if the chimney were a vacuum drawing them in from the sky. They twirled in like a reverse cloud of smoke. The tornado spun for several minutes before diminishing, bit by bit, until the storm was down to just a few stragglers.

And then, after a few beats, one last bird zipped across the sky and ducked in just in time, accompanied by onlookers' laughter and applause.

John James Audubon doesn't appear to have ever painted the Vaux's swift, but he did encounter its eastern cousin, the chimney swift, and study its natural history. He witnessed the birds' flowing into a communal roost at dusk and described it :

"When about to descend into a hollow tree or a chimney, its flight, always rapid, is suddenly interrupted as if by magic, for down it goes in an instant, whirling in a peculiar manner, and whirring with its wings, so as to produce a sound in the chimney like the rumbling of very distant thunder."

Ornithologist William Leon Dawson (1873–1928), who called the Vaux's swift a humble "sky-scooter," notes that "at favorite seasons the birds cross and recross each other's paths in lawless mazes and fill the air with their strident creakings, while here and there couples and even trios sail about in great stiff curves with wings held aloft."

Vaux's swifts are a cause for celebration at a number of chimneys along their migratory flight path. You can cheer them on in Monroe this year on Saturday, September 12 (find out more on the Swift Night Out website here). The website also streams images of the birds inside the chimney via the Swiftcam (shown below).


Thursday, July 23, 2015

Boy Howdy, Plum Pandowdy!

It's been so hot around here that one of our fans finally conked out from exhaustion and was replaced with three new ones. The Pacific Northwest spent June and July smashing high-temperature records (13 days with temperatures of 80 degrees or warmer in June...8 days of 85+ in June...plenty of 90+ days...new record high recorded in Walla Walla on June 28 of 113 degrees...that sort of thing).

Thanks to this scorching, it's looking a lot like September around here, with parched brown lawns and trees shedding yellow leaves and mountain ashes already flaunting bunches of orange berries. And it surely must have something to do with our ornamental plum tree producing a bumper crop of plums, probably for the first time in its life.

Ornamental plum trees are not bred to produce luscious fruit. They're just supposed to look pretty decked out in their frilly pink spring finery. Perhaps some quirk of timing in when the tree bloomed this year due to the heat caused more of its flowers to be pollinated, because it's pumping out plums by the bucketful.

The plums are perfectly edible, which is not the same thing as perfectly luscious. We haven't felt terribly inspired to pick them.

For one thing, our tree's branches are up very high, and we don't have the right sort of ladder to boost us safely up into the branches. For another, the fruit, while copious, is scattered throughout the crown, not easily situated for picking.

And gathering up the fallen fruit is a tedious and unproductive activity. The only way to do it without constantly stooping and looking like one of those drinky-bird toys teetering around the yard is to crawl on hands and knees, inspecting each grape-sized fruit for worms. Any that aren't infested with worms are bound to have burst open, because they hit the ground like water balloons. You can hear them crash from across the garden.


All that effort garners a few cups of puny plums, which, though resembling red grapes, lack that fruit's snap, pop, and zing.  They're mealy and mushy, with a seed that takes up about a third of the interior. Fine for jam, but pretty blah out of hand.

But I did have a nice bowl full of yellow plums from a friend. It was way too hot to bother making jam, but it's never too hot to make a fruit dessert to serve with vanilla ice cream. I flipped through the recipe books and settled on a plum pandowdy.


"Pandowdy" is one of those words that's fun to say but has murky origins. The recipe book claimed that the name came from the way the pastry was laid across the cooked fruit and then chopped into squares and pushed down into it--an action called "dowdying." I haven't been able to verify that anywhere. Though perhaps if you smash something that's literally an upper crust to bits, it becomes dowdy...?

I never got to the "dowdy" part, though, because I was impatient and made the classic mistake of not reading the recipe through before assembling it, so I ended up dumping some dry ingredients into the pastry that weren't supposed to go in because they were for the filling. Oops. There was no way it would ever roll out under a pin, so I just crumbled it into blobs and dropped it on the filling. Even dowdier than the original plan.


The end result was an extremely tart caramel-colored plummy dessert with mediocre chunks of pastry in it. Filling definitely needed more sugar, which could've been supplied by putting on a crumb topping instead of pastry--but a nice dollop of vanilla ice cream offset the tartness, so the pandowdy was history in a respectable amount of time.

It didn't inspire me to crawl around the garden scrutinizing fallen plums and collecting them for another recipe, however. I'm leaving them to the birds (robins particularly love fruit, and it's fun to watch them stab the orbs and shake them around before swallowing them), and to Luna, who's been joyfully hoovering them up for weeks. She is transported with joy that we have a snack-dispensing tree in the yard.


But for the resident humans, walking across the yard is like tramping around on a giant sheet of bubble wrap, and it'll be that way for a few weeks yet, judging by how many plums are still dangling from the branches. I must say, this ornamental tree looks extremely proud of itself.




Thursday, July 2, 2015

Hush! A Thrush

Some birds are more often heard than seen.

The Swainson's thrush is a member of this shy chorus. Cryptically clad in buff and white, with a spattering of spots to break up its form, it slips quietly through trees and shrubs, keeping out of sight.

But when the male Swainson's lifts his voice in song, it's enough to make you feel as if you've been transported to some Arcadian idyll. The song is an ethereal upward spiral, sung not only at dawn but also throughout the evening, often until well after sunset. A haunting, ringing quality seems to make it hang shimmering in the air until the next trill rises. (You can listen to it here.)

Before this year, I'd only seen a Swainson's thrush once, and that was just because he was kicking up a storm rustling through leaves in a neighbor's yard uphill from my Seattle one in an area where a fence had fallen down. He gave me one startled look and vanished.

This summer, I have the privilege of watching a female Swainson's incubate her eggs in a nest perched on a conifer branch just a few yards from my office window in Cottage Lake.

She sits so patiently on  her tightly woven nest; on many days it seems she only moves to snuggle herself in more deeply. I often feel like bringing out a few magazines for her, and a little cup of coffee. With the recent scorching weather, though, I've observed her sitting next to the nest, letting the air keep the eggs warm. She prods the eggs with her beak now and then, testing their temperature and turning them over.


The male, however, is all over the place. He often flutters into the maple right next to the window to peer in at me. Or to give a thumping to the male robin who rashly lands on a branch in his domain. Sometimes he swoops through the spray of the hose when I'm watering the raspberry patch out front. Sometimes he perches on the shepherd's hook in the garden near the nest, looking like an expectant father pacing a waiting room in a 1940s movie.

The Swainson's thrush is such a lovely bird, it's a shame that it's got such an unimaginative name--the fate, alas, of so many birds. No offense, Swainson, but seriously? You already have a warbler and a hawk named after you. (Reptiles and fish totally luck out when it comes to names. More on that some other time.)

Regional names for this flutist of the woods aren't much of an improvement. According to the Audubon Encyclopedia of North American Birds, its nicknames include Alma's thrush (who's Alma?), olive-backed thrush (ho-hum), russet-backed thrush (yawn), and swamp robin (better, but rather limiting).

More interesting are the varied ways in which bird books render the thrush's skein of song.
photo from Wikipedia

"Song spirals upward, like whip-poor-will-a-will-e-zee-zee-zee, going up high and fine at end..." explains the Audubon Encyclopedia of North American Birds.

"Po po tu tu tu tureel tureel tiree tree tree," warble the thrushes in the Sibley guide, but only if they're in the Pacific; interior west and taiga birds tend to whistle "po rer reer reeer re-e-e-e-e-e" instead.

Naturalist William Leon Dawson, in Birds of California, describes this thrush as "a flitting shade and a haunting voice," and admits to difficulty in recreating the song in syllables, but shares other naturalists' versions:
weeloo weelo weeloeeewit-wit
t'villia-t'villiaholsey
govendy govindy goveendy
Well, wit-wit and weeloo and a govindy, too. Some authors, though, dispense with interpreting the song and go with the "everybody's a critic" approach:
"Those who have heard the olive-backed thrush singing an even-song to its brooding mate compare it with the veery's, but it has a break in it and is less simple and pleasing than the latter's." Neltje Blanchan, Bird Neighbors, 1922
"Its song, while perhaps not as beautiful as that of the Hermit Thrush, is better known to most bird-watchers..." Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, Eastern Region
"The throaty, gurgling song lacks the richness of the wood thrush's and the purity of the hermit's but is pleasantly musical." Richard Pough, Audubon Guides
Fortunately, Swainson's thrushes cannot read.

By Don Faulkner via Wikimedia Commons
They also make a wonderful call that sounds like a drop of water, often rendered whoit or quoit.

[We interrupt this twittering about thrush song for some breaking news. It appears the eggs may have hatched, as I thought I saw a tiny head and gaping beak protrude from the nest's edge before Mama Thrush stood over it. She has her wings spread out to shade the nest, as it's currently in full sunlight on a day shaping up to be a hot one.]

I have my fingers crossed for our resident thrushes. Their nest is built precariously close to the tip of a branch, rather than tucked closely by the trunk, and I fear that the day will come that a jay or crow takes note of it and dives in for a meal.

I know, I know, that's nature for you. I don't blame the jays and crows; I just hope it doesn't happen. The thrushes have been so single-minded  in raising their brood, parental intensity condensed to a single point in their black ink-drop eyes. I'd like to see their little ones fledge.

In fall, Swainson's thrushes leave the northwest and head south. Some migrate as far as Argentina. They fly at night, calling to each other, and if you listen in a quiet place, you can hear their notes twinkling down from the sky.