Communications Coordinator


Top contestants in most Avian Song Contests, a wood thrush, black and white warbler and a meadowlark. (Photos, left to right, by Blaine Rothauser, Bruce Miller and Tim Daniel)

Roll up, roll up – nature’s biggest and bestest (hee-hee, that’s not a word!) Song Contest is about to begin. Yup, the Aves Have It! Why, they’re out in the forests practicing their songs even as we speak. They’re nature’s very own Masked Singers. Indeedy! Not like the telly program, with celebs in various stages of career degradation dressed in extremely silly costumes. No, nature’s Masked Singers are songbirds masked by the leaves, carefully guarding their identities and allowing us to judge them purely on the beauty of their songs.

And such songs! The Passerines (that’s not a swear word, by the way, it’s just some fancy-smancy classification of birds with weird feet, a categorization designed by some Latin biologists yonks ago when Latin was still a thing and the price of fish was nowt but a dime a pound — or libra pondo, as the posh fancy-smanciers would have it!) But I’ve lost my train! Oh well, if you really must know, Passerines are perching birds that have three toes on each foot that go forwards and one toe on each foot that goes backwards, so that qualifies as pretty weird feet to me! Although, to be sure, I don’t have to perch on a branch in the forest when I choose to belt out a show tune after a glass or two of red on a Friday night, so maybe that’s just me!

Regardless of feet, the Passerines, also called Oscines (why use one Latin dandy-pants phrase when two will boil the blood of the casual bird fancier even more quickly), produce some of the most beautiful sounds in nature. The stars of these songbirds are the warblers, the thrushes and the finches. These songbirds have as many as six pairs of muscles around their song box, which allows them incredible control of their vocalizations and songs. The fancy-smanciers would have you call this song box a syrinx, which is — guess what — Latin for a reed or a reed pipe. But whatever you call it, the sound box is the engine that drives all those beautiful sounds out into the forest. And which can be so satisfying and uplifting for us humans to hear.

Lots of people have their own favorite forest crooners among the songbirds. In any forest song contest, the wood thrush is always amongst the favorites, and the bookies wouldn’t give you very good odds if you wanted to put down a dollar or two on a Carolina wren, which packs a great big heroic tenor voice in a weedy-looking little songbird. Meadowlarks are known for their beautiful melodies and many of the warblers, with dozens of separate species, have long and complex songs involving very fast-moving trills and lots of different sections to their song, with themes and variations. Clear Creek is especially noted for it warblers, with as many as 20 nesting pairs of these beautiful-looking and beautiful-sounding birds recorded there, and with many more migrating species. Other parks such as Highbanks, Blackick Woods, Blendon Woods, Slate Run and Sharon Woods attract huge numbers of songbirds too and are worth repeated visits.

If you’re really lucky with your timing, you might just happen upon that particular park and that particular section of forest where the birds themselves organize and conduct their own annual song contest. And that would be fabulous! There’s no advance ticketing, no prior marketing, no way of really knowing when it’s going to happen, so get out to the parks regularly and often and hope for the best. You might even get to experience an event like that at Highbanks in 2004, which has percolated down into Avian Lore. Here is the tall tale, heretofore untold!

Corvus Walt and the Great Song Contest Scandal

It was a truth universally acknowledged (bit of a Jane Austen rip off here, but stick with it) that Eva Proth was the most beautiful bird in the entire network of central Ohio forests. Well, her dear old dad was something of a fat head as far as his daughter was concerned – as far as anything was concerned, actually. Cos he made a pronouncement that the winner of that year’s Avian Song Contest would have his dear Eva to wife, and get most of the old scatterbrain’s fortune as well.

Now this was a prize indeed and all the usual top contenders amongst the songbirds spent weeks practicing their melodies, trills and whistles, intent on marriage to the beautiful prothonotary warbler. Trouble was, Eva was already in love with someone, and that someone sure as heck wasn’t a candidate to win an Avian Song Contest.

Eva Proth and Corvus Walt

Corvus Walt was a great big American crow and his song was as ugly as they come, as ugly as a slap in the face with a salted wet fish. Walt and Eva tried to elope before the contest, but they were found out. Their love was toast, unless Corvus Walt, also known as Walter, could win the Song Contest. Eva’s maid, named Magdalena, threatened her boyfriend David that unless he could train up Corvus Walt to become a mastersinger, then dear old David could sing for his supper until the cows came home. And the cows were all away on vacation that week, anyway! Just sayin’.

By the way, any superficial or substantive similarity to characters or events in Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is entirely coincidental… hmm, intentional! But I digress!

“Oh golly, oh dear, oh my!” David exclaimed, as he listened to Corvus Walt give it his best but utterly useless shot at becoming a mastersinger. “You make such an ugly sound! Where’s your chest voice? It isn’t like you have a small chest, now is it, Crow? Chest voice, puffed out, for resonance and volume. But no! All you do is stick your tongue down your throat, ingolata, thinking that’ll make your voice bigger! Nah nah nah! That just makes your voice wobble.”

“Warble?” Corvus Walt queried hopefully.

“Wobble, not warble! Wobble! Wobbles is ugly, get me! You’ll never beat a warbler in a song contest, Crow, let alone a thrush. And a bit of variety in yer lyrics wouldn’t go amiss, neither. Caw caw caw! That’s all I get from you! Caw caw caw! Nothin’ lovely about that, now is there? Caw blimey!”

The Beaky Blinders

It seemed downright hopeless, but Eva and Magdalena came up with a master plan — allegedly! It’s said that they contacted a devious and dangerous avian gang, known as the Beaky Blinders. (The non-avian version of this gang was called the Peaky Blinders and it’s a show on Netflix, starring the delicious Cillian Murphy as the gang’s leader, Thomas Shelby). But there I go, digressing again. The Beaky Blinders were just as ruthless as Cillian’s lot, and for extravagant fees, and multiple considerations in the small print that not even an owl with better than twenty-twenty and a massive great magnifying glass could ever hope to see, they promised Eva that Corvus Walt would win the contest. And miraculous as that seemed, it actually happened!

The warblers all had their shot, and the chestnut-sided and the black and white warblers each had the lead in the voting at one point, until the wood thrush took the stage and wowed everyone with his wonderful melodious song. The applause from a thousand clapping wings was still echoing through the forest when Corvus Walt took to the stage. Oh the laughter, the derision, as the American crow strode into the spotlight. But by golly, Corvus Walt produced a gorgeous fluttering note that held in the air like a magic flute and swept across the audience and the judges like a cloud of pure sonic rapture. Oh, it was no contest at all! Corvus Walt was deemed a true mastersinger and winner of the Song Contest.

Eva flew into Walter’s embracing wings and it’s said they lived happily thereafter as Crow and Wife, or whatever the true avian equivalent of the sanctity of marriage is properly called.

The Ugly Truth

But here’s the thing, that weren’t no crow standing singing in the spotlights that night. The Beaky Blinders fashioned a perfect crow costume for a nightingale, and ‘twas a nightingale that sang, that night, and won Eva’s wing in marriage.

A backstage worker stated, “I were in the dressin’ room and I saw two o’ them Beaky Blinders pull the head off the crow and I almost crapped m’self! I thought it were some kind o’ avian execution for somert or other. But then this here nightingale crept out o’ the costume and got paid a shed load o’ worms for his trouble.”

Yep, the Beaky Blinders imported a ringer from Europe, a nightingale dressed in a crow costume. As soon as the costumed crow stepped out of the spotlights, the real Corvus Walt took his place. More recently, that’s been confirmed by the corrupt stage manager, a warbler of ill repute, but rumors were rife for months afterwards and it led to a turf war between the warblers and the thrushes that has never really ended down Highbanks way.

And every word of it is true! Non mendacem! Honestus!

Birding by ear, or the ability to recognize birds purely through their songs, is a wonderful way to enrich your visit to any of the Metro Parks, especially those with dense woodland. You can listen to birdsongs ahead of your park visit by going to Their website has a fabulous library of birdsongs available to listen to free and help you become familiar with the songs of hundreds of bird species. So Happy May to you all, and enjoy the songbirds while you can!

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