Story and photo by Budd Titlow
Many years ago, I was walking through a lovely old-growth stand of northern hardwoods on a glacial moraine hillside in northeastern Connecticut, conducting a bird survey for a proposed residential subdivision. With each step, my mind slipped deeper into despair over sacrificing this beautiful woodland habitat for human housing.
Suddenly, my senses were filled by the most beautiful sound I had ever heard in the field. The lilting notes of a flute—eh-oh-lay, oh-lay-eeeee—came wafting ethereally through the misty shafts of sunlight and shadow. I was listening to the wonderfully mellifluous tones of my first wood thrush—eh-oh-lay, oh-lay-eeeee—first rising then falling in pitch every five seconds!
Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “All About Birds” website describes the wood thrush as, “… a consummate songster … (that) can sing internal duets with itself. In the final trilling phrase of its three-part song, it sings pairs of notes simultaneously, one in each branch of its y-shaped syrinx, or voicebox. The two parts harmonize with each other to produce a haunting, ventriloquial sound.”
The wood thrush is a distinctly North American songbird, about the same size as a robin to which it is closely related. Like so many of our other songbird species, adult wood thrushes spend their winters in the Neotropical hardwood forests of Mexico and Central America. They then fly long distances back to the eastern US to nest and serenade us throughout the spring and summer.
Living in solitude except during the nesting season, wood thrushes spend the majority of their time serendipitously scrabbling through leaf litter in their tightly forested homes. Moving slowly along, they abruptly bob upright every now and then holding a juicy caterpillar, beetle, millipede, snail, or small salamander which they gobble down before resuming their leafy searching.
Because of its uniquely beautiful voice and exclusive preference for old-growth woodlands, the wood thrush has become a “poster child” for the far-reaching impacts of deforestation and forest fragmentation in both its over-wintering and nesting habitats. In fact, wood thrush populations have declined almost 50 percent since 1966. “Forest fragmentation” is a fancy term for clear-cutting bold swaths through what had been virgin or old-growth timberland.
Fragmentation severely affects wildlife in several ways. First, it wipes out large areas of habitat that were formerly available to naturally-occurring forest wildlife communities. Next it cuts off traditional migratory pathways, permanently eliminating wildlife access to feeding, escape, and breeding cover.
For songbirds—like the wood thrush—clear-cutting also creates “edge habitat,” allowing invasive nest parasites like the brown-headed cowbird to gain a foothold. Unfortunately, wood thrushes readily accept and raise cowbird eggs, which severely reduces their success at reproducing their own young. Fortunately, the fragmentation issue is now being addressed in many forest management plans which call for selective cutting of mature trees instead of wholesale clear-cutting.
This is good news for birders, biologists, and outdoor lovers everywhere. Now we can always count on the spring/summer thrill of hearing the fluting virtuosity of the wood thrush, the James Galway of our deep eastern forests.
A Professional Wetland Scientist (Emeritus) and Wildlife Biologist, Budd Titlow is an international/national award-winning nature photographer and a widely published writer/author currently living in Tallahassee, Florida. He has authored four books, including PROTECTING THE PLANET—Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change (ISBN 978-1633882256), BIRD BRAINS—Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends (ISBN 978-0-7627-8755-5), and SEASHELLS—Jewels from the Ocean (ISBN 978-0-7603-2593-3). He is currently writing weekly birding photo-essays for the Tallahassee Democrat, teaching ecology-birding-photography courses for Florida State University, and serving as President-Elect of Apalachee Audubon Society. Budd’s work is featured on his web site (www.buddtitlow.com).