The wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina), renowned for its captivating melodies, has made its grand return to Maryland with the arrival of summer. Naturalists and birders are rejoicing as the deep woods come alive with the beautiful songs of this small, brown, and white bird closely related to the American robin. While its appearance may not be the most vibrant, the wood thrush compensates with its exceptional musicality.

According to the esteemed Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the wood thrush’s song comprises three parts, with the most distinct segment being the flute-like ee-oh-lay. However, this is only the middle phrase of its intricate performance. Wood thrushes acquire the song phrase from their fellow counterparts and embellish it with 2 to 10 loud and clear notes, resulting in several variations. Additionally, they incorporate 1-3 soft notes in the introductory phrase and 6-12 complex trills in the final higher-pitched segment. Consequently, male wood thrushes effortlessly to produce over 50 different songs.

Serenading Wood Thrush Credit: Lilian Cerdeira

The wood thrush’s vocal abilities extend beyond traditional melodies. They are known to engage in “internal duets,” a remarkable feat where they spontaneously combine two notes by simultaneously singing one in each branch of their voicebox. This unique talent can be appreciated by listening to an audio sample available [here](audio sample link). While some forms of traditional throat singing among humans can achieve a similar effect, it remains a rarity in the avian world.

The wood thrush’s dating and family life adds another layer of intrigue to its life history. Male wood thrushes employ their vocal repertoire to delight listeners and establish territory and attract a mate. Once a male wood thrush woos a female with his melodic prowess, the couple engages in courtship activities akin to an active and delightful date night. They fly in circles together and share food, such as insects and other delectable treats.

After pairing off, the couples collaborate in nest-building and caring for their offspring. Sometimes, the father assumes a significant role in feeding the first brood, allowing the female to establish a second brood. However, the seemingly idyllic and monogamous co-parenting of wood thrushes harbors a fair amount of variation and dramatic situations. Genetic studies have revealed that in certain nests, up to 40% of the chicks have a different biological father, indicating infidelity on the part of both males and females.

Researchers and biology students in Baltimore are diligently studying wood thrush parental behavior to unravel the factors that influence nest success. Recent data suggest that some males display negligent parenting behavior, attending to the nest less diligently than the average bird. Surprisingly, this paternal neglect significantly impacts nests’ overall success or failure.

Unfortunately, the wood thrush, like many other species, has experienced a steep decline in population in recent years. According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, their numbers have plummeted by approximately 50% between 1966 and 2019. Climate change also threatens their range, indicating significant challenges for this migratory bird and others. To support the beloved wood thrush and similar species, there are several actions gardeners and backyard habitat managers can take:

  1. Plant native species: By cultivating native plants, you can support the insects and small animals that constitute the wood thrush’s diet. Additionally, preserving large trees whenever possible is crucial, ensuring contiguous habitats throughout their range. If removing trees becomes necessary, consider replacing them or adding new ones to maintain thick and connected forests.
  2. Make informed purchases: Exercise your purchasing power by choosing bird-friendly and shade-grown coffee brands. Look for products that prioritize conservation efforts and avoid pesticide use. By supporting such brands, you contribute to the protection of bird habitats.
  3. Prevent bird collisions and protect against predators: Install window treatments to minimize the risk of bird collisions with glass windows. Additionally, keeping house cats indoors helps safeguard local bird populations from predation.
  4. The wood thrush’s melodious songs serve as a reminder of the diverse and intricate beauty of nature. However, the decline in their population highlights the urgency of conservation efforts. By preserving their habitats, making conscious purchasing choices, and taking steps to minimize threats, we can contribute to preserving this enchanting species and ensure that future generations continue to be serenaded by their awe-inspiring melodies.
  5. As the wood thrush returns to grace Maryland with its melodic symphony, let us embrace the opportunity to appreciate and protect these remarkable birds. Through our collective efforts, we can ensure that the wood thrush’s song echoes through the deep woods for generations to come.

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

David M. Higgins II is an award-winning journalist passionate about uncovering the truth and telling compelling stories. Born in Baltimore and raised in Southern Maryland, he has lived in several East...

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