Musicians of the Morning

By Lynette Anderson, Belwin Conservancy Naturalist

Wood Thrush

Spring has arrived! It is the time for long walks in the sunshine, sitting outside with friends with a glass of your favorite beverage, and, for those of us in love with birds, it is the time to listen for the mesmerizing chorus of returning bird songs.

Perhaps one of the most beloved songs of the spring and summer season is that of the Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina). Their sweet and soulful Ee-oh-lay is a glad reward for all who venture out at dawn or dusk during the breeding season.

Henry David Thoreau was so enchanted with the Wood Thrush that he wrote, “This is the only bird whose note affects me like music. It lifts and exhilarates me. It is inspiring. It changes all hours to an eternal morning.”

These songsters breed in mixed and deciduous woodlands throughout the eastern United States. They need large tracts of mature trees, a moderate understory of saplings and shrubs, water nearby, and an open forest floor with moist soil and decaying leaf litter. It is under the leaf litter that they forage for invertebrates like beetles, caterpillars, millipedes and ants. They also enjoy berries from the shrubs in which they may build their nests.

Wood Thrush

These reclusive birds are a member of the Turdidae family, which includes the American Robin, Hermit Thrush, and Veery. Wood Thrush are about 8 inches long, have a pot-bellied body, short tail, straight bill, big head and upright posture. The upper feathers are a warm cinnamon color while the under parts are white with bold black spots. Their profile is one of a scaled- down Robin.

This particular family member, the Wood Thrush, has been the object of research by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center due to dramatic decreases in population over the past 50 years. The Wood Thrush is an indicator species for other migratory and non-migratory birds that depend on eastern deciduous forests to breed successfully and raise their young.

In July of 2014, Smithsonian researchers in Washington and Dakota counties put geo-locators on 25 adult Wood Thrush. In 2015, the researchers recovered seven returning adults. The information retrieved allowed scientists to track the Wood Thrush movements on both legs of their epic migration and to pinpoint stopover sites for the first time. (Read more about this research project.)

The Wood Thrush population decline cannot be pinned to one thing, but as with other birds of concern, to a suite of problems. Habitat loss both in breeding and wintering grounds seems to be first on the list. This then leads to other threats. As habitats are fragmented, more edge becomes available, which allows predators of all kinds—common are snakes, raccoons and cats—to find the nests and eat the eggs or nestlings.

Habitat fragmentation also allows Brown-headed Cowbirds to find the nests and lay their eggs alongside the Wood Thrush eggs. The Brown-headed Cowbirds then leave and the Wood Thrush assumes all parenting duties for this larger, earlier hatching baby.

Wood Thrush and Cowbird Nestling.

You can hear the Wood Thrush at Belwin’s Stagecoach Prairies Natural Areas at dawn and dusk.

While Wood Thrush are still somewhat common throughout the forests of eastern North America, here are a few things you can do to help keep their populations growing:

  • Keep your cats indoors! Cats are ambush hunters by nature and even if they are the best-fed kitty on the block they will still stalk and attack birds on the ground.
  • Create new habitat in your yard. Native shrubs and berry trees provide much needed food, cover, and nesting sites as well as stopover habitat for birds heading farther north.
  • Reduce the use of pesticides. These poisons can harm many ground feeding birds that depend on soil invertebrates.
  • Support conservation efforts in your community. Be it a nature center, natural area or just a local park, support by volunteering or making donations.
  • Buy shade-grown coffee. Many neo-tropical migrants, including the Wood Thrush, are finding safe and healthy havens in coffee plantations on their wintering grounds.
  • Go out and enjoy the sounds. Take a walk in your nearest woods and listen for the magical sound of the Wood Thrush.

Members: Join us on the third Tuesday of each month for a Sunset Prairies Hike at Stagecoach Prairies. Park in the lot off 11th Street South. Our next hike is June 13 from 7:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Not a member? Join now to enjoy all the benefits of membership and to support our work.