In 1852, inspired by the distinctive song emanating from the forests of the eastern U.S., naturalist David Thoreau penned, “Whenever a man hears it, he is young, and Nature is in her spring … He sings to make men take higher and truer views of things.” The flute-like melody belonged to the Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina), a close relative of the American Robin (Turdus migratorius). Paired with its song, its autumn-colored back and characteristic white and bold brown underside makes the Wood Thrush a recognizable, endearing presence in eastern deciduous forests from northern Florida to southern Canada during the breeding season.
Every spring as temperatures and green growth slowly creep back, the Wood Thrush returns from its non-breeding grounds in the tropical forests of Central America to its breeding grounds in the interior mature and mixed forests that extend throughout the lands east of the Mississippi River. Males arrive first to claim territories and soon begin belting out a multi-part flute-like song that rings out ‘ee-oh-lay’ to attract their female counterparts. Their distinctive song derives from a divided syrinx – the vocal organ of birds – that can create two separate notes simultaneously. Upon mate selection, the female begins building a nest consisting of all types of material – from bark and moss to dead leaves, grass, and even mud. The nest generally hangs from the fork of a branch in the lower midstory of a forest, with sheltering foliage providing shade and cover. Nests are predominately located in the interior of mature deciduous and hardwood forests where trees are tall, open areas are plentiful, and the understory vegetation is dense.
Richly abundant in the days of Thoreau, Wood Thrush songs are heard less and less as mature forests are lost and fragmented. We now recognize that large acreages of the remaining mature forests – especially in the Appalachians - must be preserved and even expanded to stabilize the population. The Wood Thrush is among the most iconic and steadily declining of North America’s forest-dwelling songbirds. Throughout its breeding range in the eastern U.S. and Canada, Wood Thrush populations have declined by approximately 50 percent since the mid- 1960s. It has been on the Partners in Flight Watch List for more than a decade and is listed as Threatened in Canada. Recently, declines have accelerated in northern portions of the range and at higher elevations. The species is a symbol for Neotropical bird conservation and the need to protect forest health, not only in the U.S. and Canada, but also in Mexico and Central America where Wood Thrush spend the winter in lowland forests.