It’s been a cool, dry spring, but now a welcome spell of mild, rainy weather softens the evening. Distant thunder rumbles a counterpoint to the wood thrush singing in the woods behind the barn.
Fifty years ago, our woods was a pasture. Now sycamores, boxelder, spicebush, and pawpaws line the spring-fed stream. Beneath the trees and wild grapevines grows an exotic understory of Japanese, Tatarian and Amur honeysuckles, ailanthus, white mulberry, Indian strawberry, and Japanese barberry. This Asian-American combination evidently suffices as home for a resident wood thrush.
Wood thrush song sounds like cathedral organ music to me. Muted by distance, it’s even sweeter. It invokes childhood evenings in June seated on a porch step, enchanted by an unknown birdsong coming from the neighbor’s woods.
I finally learned what bird made that song from a record by Ornithologist and bird song recording pioneer Arthur A. Allen. Dr. Allen described the wood thrush’s song better than anyone—in an educational leaflet from Cornell University written in 1909 for school children:
“The little brook gurgles just out of sight, and water dripping from the rocks strikes the surface of a pool with a music that cannot be described. Suddenly you become aware that other music is filling the woods. It has come to you gradually, has been so much a part of the murmuring stream and dripping water that you have not noticed its beginning. All at once it forces itself upon your consciousness and you realize you have been hearing it all the while. Now that you have noticed it, everything else sinks into insignificance and the top of the tall maple seems to resound with pure, rich, flute-like tones … This song we shall remember though we forget all others. It is the song of the Wood Thrush.”
Wood thrushes are probably rarer today than they were at the turn of the 20th century near Ithaca, New York, where Dr. Allen’s wood thrush sang. At that time, the Eastern hardwood forest was just recovering from the massive clear cuts made in the years after the Civil War. Today these maturing hardwood forests are breaking up and disappearing once again, giving way to subdivisions and business parks. Biologists believe forest fragmentation has resulted in declining wood thrush populations since the 1970s.
Wood thrushes prefer to live out of human sight, nesting and singing in the leafy understory of the woods. They forage insects and snails from the forest floor, hopping about the damp leaves like robins. They hide their sky-blue, thumb-size eggs in a leafy nest that’s usually built in a forked branch of a shrub near eye level. The hen bird sits so tight you’ll probably walk by without seeing her.
If you’re persistent and quiet, it’s possible to sneak up on a singing male perched among the leaves, brown-backed, pale beak tilted slightly upwards, and breast speckled like a cowrie shell. But the song sounds best when heard from the backyard.
Hear the wood thrush and watch him sing in wonderful videos on Lang Eliot’s website: www.musicofnature.com.
— Doug is an artist, writer, and naturalist living near Shepherdstown. He also submitted the illustration for this piece, courtesy of the Pennsylvania Game Commission.