Bird Files: The Veery—Two Songs, One Bird

  • The veery is capable of singing a duet with itself. Photo: Shawn Collins

July 17, 2015

Veeries live in the dense understory of moist mixed deciduous forests. They have a russet-colored back and faint spotting on the throat and upper chest. They may look plain, but their voices are anything but ordinary.

Their complex song, a haunting series of liquid notes that spiral down the musical scale, is often considered one of the loveliest in the northern forests of Pennsylvania.

If you listen carefully, it may sound like the bird is producing two notes at the same time. And it is! The veery, in effect, sings a duet with itself.

The two-part song is a product of air flowing from its lungs through a divided syrinx, or voice box. The bird controls each note separately with multiple pairs of internal and external muscles.

Wildlife artist John James Audubon said that the veery’s song “is composed of continuous trills repeated with different variations, enunciated with great delicacy and mellowness.”

If you want to hear the veery’s delicate tune, your best chance is in the morning or early evening in the northern forests of the state. You can even find veeries near Pittsburgh at Linn Run State Park on the western slope of Laurel Mountain.

Take a drive there on a Sunday with your windows rolled down, and you might hear the distinctive song—and understand what Audubon meant when he said “it is extremely pleasing to one listening to them, in the dark solitudes where the sylvan songster resides.”

Bird calls provided by the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and recorded by William Hershberger