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Native Animal Profile: Wood Thrush

“I want to sing like the birds sing, not worrying about who hears or what they think.” ~ Rumi.

The arrival of summer in Maryland means the full orchestra of songbirds is back from winter migrations and treating our ears to a symphony of calls. Many naturalists and birders agree that one of the most beautiful songs in the deep woods is that of the wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina). This small, brown and white bird in the same family as the American robin may not be the most colorful or showy, but they make up for it in musicality. According to the Cornell Lab:

The wood thrush’s easily recognized, flute-like ee-oh-lay is actually only the middle phrase of a three-part song. It learns the phrase from other wood thrushes and sings several variants with 2 to 10 loud, clear notes. Combining those with 1–3 variants of the low, soft notes of the introductory phrase and 6–12 variants of the final higher-pitched complex trill, a male can easily sing over 50 distinct songs.

Wood thrushes are also known to sing “internal duets,” combining two notes spontaneously by singing one in each branch of its voicebox (to hear it, click here.) Humans can accomplish this type of sound in some forms of traditional throat singing; still, just like most of us can’t reproduce such a hauntingly beautiful sound, in the bird world it is also a rarity. 

Photo of a wood thrush singing in tree

Serenading Wood Thrush by Lilian Cerdeira

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of a wood thrush life history is its dating and family life. Male wood thrushes aren’t just singing for applause – they use this series of sounds to establish territory and attract a mate. Once he’s wooed a lady with his vocal skills, the couple will “date” in a way that’s appealing to many of us – flying in circles together and feeding each other insects and other tasty treats (who doesn’t love an active date night with dinner?). Once paired off, couples will work together to nest and feed babies, with the father sometimes doing much of the feeding of the first brood so the female can establish a second. Despite this appearance of blissful, monogamous co-parenting, scientists have found a fair amount of variation and soap-opera-worthy drama in the wood thrush world. For starters, in some nests, as many as 40% of chicks have been genetically shown to have a different daddy, suggesting some fooling around on the part of both males and females. Researchers and biology students right here in Baltimore have been studying wood thrush parental behavior, trying to understand what factors most influence nest success. Recent data suggests that some males (for reasons yet unknown) are slackers in the parenting department, attending the nest much less skillfully than the average bird. Interestingly, this fatherly neglect seems to be hugely influential in the overall success or failure of nests.

Tragically, this species is one of many that has experienced a drastic drop in populations in recent years, with a cumulative decline of about 50% between 1966 and 2019, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. This map also shows how climate change is likely to change its overall range, meaning a great deal of struggle for this (and other) migratory birds. So – what can we, as gardeners and backyard habitat managers, do to support our beloved wood thrush? Many of our individual and community choices can impact birds like this one, but here are three ways to get started:

  1. As we at HabiChat know well, planting native species has clear benefits, providing support for the insects and small animals wood thrushes eat. This particular species requires large areas of contiguous habitat throughout its range. Whenever possible, preserve large trees on your property and if they must come down, replace them or add to them to keep forests thick and connected. 
  2. Use your purchasing power! Look for bird-friendly and shade-grown coffee brands, for example, and support brands that avoid pesticide use or contribute to other conservation efforts when food shopping.
  3. Protect your local birds from harm by installing window treatments to prevent collisions and keeping house cats indoors.

Hello, Habichatters! In this summer issue, you’ll find a native animal profile about one of my favorite avians, along with a discussion of native lawn alternatives and resources for planting low growers. As summer reading programs gear up, we’re offering some suggestions of our favorite books for young naturalists to add to your lists. And finally, don’t forget to bling out your native gardens with colorful certification signs to educate your neighbors. Congrats to all our student readers for another academic year completed, and have a great summer!

Sarah Witcher

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In this Issue

Header image featuring native grasses