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The Hermit Thrush


The Oneida People are great storytellers. Their legends, passed down from generation to generation, are often instructive, richly promoting moral character. The legend of the hermit thrush is one such story that parents would tell to their children, teaching them the value of honesty.

In this version of the legend a vibrant mosaic complete with birds of every type is created. The pieces eventually take shape, explaining the humbling of the little hermit thrush because of his ill-gained song.

Listen to the Hermit Thrush songs and calls available on this page. See End Note

Long, long ago the birds had no song. It was a time when only humans had this melodious gift. Each day, the people would sing a song of greeting to the sun as it rose, and one of farewell as it set.

The birds admired the songs and would often stop their flight and listen to the beautiful voices. In their hearts they wished they too could be endowed with this gift. Then one day everything was to change; the Creator decided to visit the earth.

As the Creator walked through the forest, he noticed there was a great silence. The Creator knew something was missing. He was pondering the silence when from over the hills he heard a song from people in a village saluting the setting sun. He heard the Indian drums and the scared chanting of the sunset song. The song pleased the Creator.

The Creator saw that he was not alone listening to the beautiful song. The birds were silently listening to the villagers. The Creator immediately realized what was missing. “The birds, too, should have song,” said the Creator.

The next day, the Creator called the birds to a great council. Birds came from great distances, till soon the sky was filled with every variety. The birds were so numerous their combined weight bent the trees and bushes upon which they perched. When the birds grew silent the Creator spoke.

He asked the birds if they would like to have the gift of song. In one voice the birds answered the Creator, chirping a resounding “yes!”

“Very well,” said the Creator, who then proceeded to instruct the birds on how they would receive their individual songs. The Creator told the birds that the next morning as the sun rose they were to fly up into the sky, flying as far as their wings would carry them. When they could fly no further they would find their song. The bird to attain the highest flight would receive the most beautiful song. When the Creator finished directing the birds, he vanished.

Before the sun rose the next morning, the birds were preparing for their flight. Birds blanketed the earth, full of excitement. All were excited except for one, the little brown thrush. The tiny bird was perched next to the eagle. As the thrush looked at the differences between himself and the eagle, the thrush despaired, believing he would have no chance to compete against so large a bird.

Suddenly, the thrush decided upon a plan. The little thrush noted the eagle’s distracted excitement and swiftly flew onto the eagle’s head and buried himself under the eagle’s feathers. The eagle did not notice the little thrush hidden in his feathers. He was busy thinking that he would win because of his great wings.

Following the Creator’s directions, the birds began their flight as the sun rose. The flutter of the collective wings roared across the sky. So many birds were vying for the most beautiful song that their presence in the sky eclipsed the sun.

Time passed and gradually the smaller, weaker birds became tired. The little hummingbird was the first to fall out of the race. The tiny bird beat his little wings so fast that to this day if one listens closely the humming of his wings creates a constant refrain of “wait for me, wait for me” – a very simple, plain song.

The next bird to stop his ascent was the cowbird, a very fat bird. He, too, was awarded a very simple song. One after another, the birds began to weaken. As they began their decent, flying in an easterly direction, they listened and learned their individual song.

Finally, the sun began to set, and darkness enveloped the earth. Only a few birds remained in contention for the most beautiful song. The eagle, hawk, owl, buzzard and loon, the stronger, larger birds continued their upward climb. Throughout the night, the birds rose higher and higher into the sky.

When the sun rose, only one bird was left, the eagle. As the day progressed, the eagle grew weary. Believing he was the lone bird left he began to triumphantly soar toward the earth.

The little thrush was still hiding in the eagle’s feathers, having slept throughout the trip. As the eagle began to dip back toward earth, the little thrush awoke and hopped off the eagle’s head and started his upward flight. The eagle saw the thrush and realized what had happened but was too exhausted to stop him.

The little thrush flew and flew until he came to a hole in the sky. He was in a beautiful place, the Land of Happy Spirits. Upon his entrance into this world, he heard a beautiful song. He stayed in this wondrous land until he had learned the song. When he was certain he knew the song completely he flew back to earth. As he began his descent, his heart beat with anticipation, so eager was he to show off his song.

But the thrush’s happiness was not to last. As he approached the earth he saw before him all the birds gathered around council rock. Seated upon the rock was the eagle, glaring up at him.

A great silence came upon them as they waited for the thrush to reach the ground. Now the little thrush felt shame, not glory. He knew he had cheated to receive the beautiful song, and he began to fear eagle’s anger.

Instead of flying to the council rock and face eagle and the other birds, little thrush flew into the deep woods and in shame and with a heavy heart, hid under the branches of the largest tree. His shame was so great that he wished never to be seen.

The hermit thrush remains hidden in the tree to this day, never leaving his self-imposed prison. His shame is great, because he realizes he cheated. But sometimes he can not restrain himself and he sings his beautiful song.

When this happens the other birds fall silent. They know they cannot compete against the thrush's song from the Spirit World; a song that causes the sun to shine upon the hearts of those entering the dark forest.
End Note Dr. Anthony V. Phillips, professor of mathematics at SUNY Stony Brook, recorded a variety of NYS bird songs and calls and has given us permission to link to his recordings. To learn more about the SUNY Stony Brook Mathematics department please visit http://www.math.sunysb.edu/html/index.shtml

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