For as long as anyone could remember, the songs of the wood thrush had been all the rage, top of the charts — played on the radio, sought by songwriters for inspiration, and used for background sounds in movies and television. Their records invariably went platinum, and wood thrushes had won more Grammys than any other bird.
Then one day their music changed and they fell out of favor. Even hard-core fans were put off by the alternative style, so they turned to classic bird tunes. The kids all started saying canary is the new thrush.
A client came to us wanting to know what happened. We invited him in and I made tea while you got him settled. We sat around the table and listened to his tale of woe.
“The wood thrushes, they’re not singing the old songs anymore. They’ve got some new thing going, and it sounds terrible.”
“Maybe it just takes some getting used to,” you said. “How different is it?”
“It’s unrecognizable. You’d hardly call it music.”
“That’s what our parents thought about the stuff we listened to,” I said. You nodded. We’ve all been through this. But he wouldn’t be consoled.
“Go see for yourselves. Go hear for yourselves. Listen to that noise and then tell me I’m crazy.”
We hadn’t said he was crazy, but he seemed desperate. “What can we do?” you asked.
“You know all about nature and stuff, things in the forest, right? Find out the cause. They sound kind of hoarse — maybe they’ve caught a cold. Maybe they need voice lessons. I don’t know. But my business depends on recording pretty bird songs. What if all the birds start singing this way? If you can call it singing.”
We agreed to visit the birds and discreetly inquire about their new tunes.
“Okay, thanks,” he said. “Try giving them a throat lozenge.” We declined that suggestion.
The next day we headed out into a part of the forest where wood thrushes tended to gather — to seek companionship, share news, or get up a game of checkers.
“What is that?” I put my hands over my ears.
A screeching cacophony assaulted us from the branches above. If I hadn’t seen the thrushes belting out their songs with beaks wide open, I might have thought someone was cutting sheet metal with a drywall saw. Instead of the delicate flute-like ee-oh-lay followed by a lovely trill, they were producing staccato, guttural noises like ech-ug-och-oh and other compositions not suitable for print.
“These are definitely not the old songs,” you said with a grimace.
“Probably fledglings on some new kick,” I said. “Kids these days and their new-fangled music!”
“But those are all adults.”
That got us worried. If nature can’t be depended on to uphold its own traditions, we were all doomed. We recorded some sounds then practically ran out of there, vowing to bring ear muffs next time we visited.
“He’s not crazy,” I said of our client, once we were safe at home. “There’s something wrong.”
“If nature can be wrong.”
We considered that for a moment while gazing out the window at the scenery, then both came to a conclusion at the same time: “Yes, nature can be wrong.”
We called our client and told him we’d take on the project. By this time the calamity had spread throughout the country, and complaints were coming in from all over, including the District of Columbia, which had chosen the wood thrush as its official bird but was reconsidering that decision.
I asked you: “How does a bird voted Most Beautiful Avian Performance suddenly start singing like, well…”
“Like a raspy-throated chipmunk on mushrooms.” You were being perfectly serious, so I just said yeah.
Before doing more field work, we thought we should investigate recent natural phenomena.
“They’re reacting to something,” you insisted. “It can’t just be spontaneous.”
We both got online and pulled up charts showing phases of the moon, particulate matter in the atmosphere, sun spot activity, weather patterns — anything that might have influenced the thrushes. You made a graph showing the geographical spread of their new singing style, based on bird-watching reports, then we looked for correlations.
It was no good. After two days of running into dead ends, I started grasping at anything.
“Here’s one,” I said. “Sales of orange soda in rural towns match the spread of new thrush vocalizations. But to get the graphs to line up I had to change the scale on one and shift it by three months, then I turned the other graph into a five-day moving average and voila! — a near perfect correlation.”
You weren’t amused. I went back to work.
Too often I found myself going down some rabbit hole of information, learning something I didn’t really need to know. For example, one young celebrity — famous for no known reason — decided to adopt a catchphrase based on the latest thrush sounds: Eech-oh-wugh-uh. No one knew what it meant — or whether to put the stress on the first syllable or the third — but it had the desired effect of annoying everyone over twenty with an IQ in positive territory.
Armies of teenagers immediately conformed and spent hours practicing it, but other kids with even more time on their hands started a protest movement, claiming that imitating the sounds of nature is a form of appropriation that exploits oppressed forest animals. A storm erupted on social media and the celebrity tearfully apologized, but all her online accounts were suspended anyway and her cable show was canceled, so the catchphrase phenomenon lasted only about six hours, shorter than the reproductive lifespan of a mayfly.
“I can’t take this anymore,” I said, shutting my laptop. I wasn’t cut out for a lot of detective work indoors, wading through the muck of popular culture.
“I know where we need to go.” You showed me a map of Central America. “Here’s where wood thrushes are taking their vacations these days. Most of them seem to have picked up their new singing habits there.”
“If you can call it singing,” I said, quoting our client.
Some time later we were sitting outside a café in a small coastal town of Costa Rica — after having spent a week tromping through the forest, questioning the inhabitants, and looking for clues. I’ll skip over all that tromping and questioning, which was standard procedure for us, and go straight to where the clues had led us — the aforementioned café, which apparently was a can’t-miss stop for all the visiting thrushes. We soon found out why.
They arrived by the busload to gawk at the latest singing sensation — a brightly-plumed macaw with an Argentinian accent who made his living entertaining the customers. He had brilliant yellow feathers on his torso, turquoise on his wings, and a touch of green on his brow. His curved beak was black and polished, his claws well-manicured, and his long tail feathers swept majestically behind him like a cape as he strutted about on a circular platform set high on a pole near the outside tables. He was marvelous.
A trio of musicians — two gentlemen on guitars and one on conga drum — sat off to the side and accompanied the macaw as he sang of love and betrayal, anguish and heartache, and above all the joy of life.
The wood thrushes perched all around the café — on rafters, bushes, tables and chairs — sometimes crowding in and sitting elbow to wing with people. No one cared. The atmosphere was casual, the drinks were flowing, and the macaw had everyone entranced as we tapped our feet to the upbeat Latin rhythms.
He had developed a distinctive style, blending native bird sounds with heavily-accented vocals that were just barely recognizable as words.
“I feel I should be able to make out the meaning,” you said, “but I can’t quite get it.”
“Like in The Harder They Come. The Jamaicans are speaking English, but Americans still need subtitles to understand them.”
You turned and looked at me. “What provoked such an obscure reference?”
“Must be the Caribbean air.”
The tunes were so catchy and the performance so smooth, the thrushes joined in with enthusiasm, thinking that because they’re among the best singers at home, they must be good at this too. It was pitiful to see, and even worse to hear. Between the syncopated rhythms, the complex chord changes, the improvisations, and the foreign words, the music was simply too exotic for them to follow.
“I wish they’d just clap along,” I said. “And they’re getting a bit rowdy.”
“They’ve had too much guaro to drink.”
After the show the thrushes sat around in groups, warbling and squawking, trying to impress each other and doing a terrible imitation of the macaw, who’d be cringing in his dressing room if he could hear them. Then they stumbled over to the gift shop to buy t-shirts and tropically-themed knickknacks before packing up and flying home, where they continued butchering the music, to the dismay of fellow forest dwellers.
“All this because of one dumb macaw?” I said.
“You have to admit, he’s good looking, he’s talented, and he’s got flair. I can see why other birds want to imitate him.”
“But thrushes don’t have the right vocal cords. Or the cultural background. Or the flair. No wonder they mangle it so badly. It’s like little kids acting out scenes from The Threepenny Opera without understanding what Mack the Knife is up to with all those loose women.”
You frowned at me. “Not the best analogy.” You thought some more. “No, not even close.”
“It’s on my mind because we might need some underworld character to take care of that bird.” I dragged a thumb across my throat in a cutting gesture.
“We are not handling it that way!”
“I don’t suppose we can simply tell those thrushes they’re no good at the Afro-Cuban thing. Maybe start a rumor that singing this kind of music leads to all-night parties, wearing colorful clothing, and outbreaks of salsa dancing.”
You gazed down at the blue water of the Caribbean. “That may be an idea, but not the way you’re thinking. Let’s go see what’s in the gift shop. We might need a souvenir.”
The shop carried a selection of the macaw’s recordings. He was called Marco Macaw — a stage name — and had several CDs with titles like Feathers in Moonlight, The Bird From Ipanema, and Marco Sings Gershwin. We passed on that last one, but picked up a few that featured his Latin music. Your idea was to play Marco’s songs to the wood thrushes who were trying to imitate him.
“Maybe if they hear the original,” you explained, “they’ll realize just how dreadful they sound in comparison. Or maybe the other animals will say something to them.”
We returned home and took Marco Macaw on tour through North America, or at least recordings of him. We were like roadies — we’d go out to the woods hauling the biggest portable sound system we could carry, set it up near communities of thrushes, then play his music at full volume.
“This could backfire,” I said, the first time we tried it. “What if they get even more inspired to keep singing their awful imitation?”
“Then we think of another idea.”
But it did work. Once those birds heard the real thing and compared it to the version they’d been singing, and once they saw how much the squirrels were laughing at them, they turned red in the face and stopped trying to be Latin cool.
It took us all autumn to visit the most afflicted areas and shame those thrushes into silence. By springtime, they had completely forgotten about the Marco Macaw fad and went back to chirping the traditional tunes, as nature intended. Our client was happy and sanity returned to the forests, until later that summer…
We were hiking through the woods when we heard a rapid-fire toink-tonk-tink-tonk-toink — like the sound of machine-gun bullets striking muffled bells. Up in the branches a woodpecker was hammering away on a bird-size steel drum. Other woodpeckers joined in on their drums and the air was soon filled with a racket as far from calypso music as the West Indies is from the planet Neptune.
You looked at me, sighed, and slowly shook your head.
“Fancy a trip to Trinidad?” I asked. You just kept shaking your head.