What is it about strolling in the woods on a pleasant spring day that lifts you free from the vestiges of winter’s doldrums? Maybe it’s the emergence of vibrant green breaking up a monotony of earth tones so prevalent in dormancy. Maybe it is the new fragrances wafting from blossoming flowers and the decaying debris that resumes due to increased rainfall and temperatures. For me it really has to be the vernal sounds in our woods, particularly from the return of our diverse avian residents. Now I would consider myself more of a bird enthusiast rather than a seasoned birder, but I can routinely identify the calls of maybe a dozen birds in the east. There is no other sound in the woods that elevates my spirits than that of the flutey call of the wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina). EE-Oh-Laaayyyy is the best way I can describe the call phonetically for this article. Individuals can actually produce multiple notes simultaneously that provide their own harmony to their song. It is quite distinctive, like a sound conjured by wood elves that I would expect to be emanating from Mirkwood Forest on any spring day in the third age. Wood thrush apparently really like to vocalize too as these flutey calls are often the first to emerge in the morning and last to cease in the evening.

Wood thrush are neotropical migrants that breed throughout mature deciduous and mixed forest of the eastern United States. They are forest specialists and prefer to nest in the interior of larger contiguous woodlands. Ideal habitat would be woodlands with large mature trees like oak, beech, sweet gum and pines with a moderate, diverse understory layer and an open forest floor with moist soil. Wood thrush are omnivores feeding on invertebrates like insects, arachnids, gastropods and worms and on soft mast fruit from trees and shrubs like spicebush, elderberry, blackgum and black cherry. They often will feed on invertebrates more during the early season to attain a higher protein diet for the breeding season. You can often see them hopping on the forest floor tossing leaf litter in search of prey. After the breeding season, though, their diet consists more of fruits in order to gain higher fat content as they prepare for their long winter migration, which can be as far away as Central America.

Wood thrush are strictly monogamous…for a breeding season. Their territory is usually a few acres, and they will defend their territory and produce shrill, “machine gun” like alarm calls to alert mates of potential threats. A pair often raises two broods during the season and will build separate nests for each about 300 feet apart. Wood thrush are adapted to large tracts of forests and very dependent on forest interior conditions. They are considered a Forest Interior Dwelling Species and are vulnerable to habitat changes caused by current threats to our region’s forest like fragmentation, invasive plants infiltration, and herbivory in the forest understory. Woodland fragmentation has been especially damaging for successful reproduction of the wood thrush and many other FIDS like scarlet tanagers, oven birds, and red eyed vireos, because it leaves these interior birds vulnerable to over competition for nesting sites, nest predation, and nest parasitism from edge species like the brown headed cowbird. Unfortunately, wood thrush have seen a 50% decline in population since the 1960’s due to both to these threats in our eastern forests as well to habitat loss in low land tropical areas where many migrate for the winter.

Despite the decline in population, wood thrush are still common in our eastern forests for now. Improving their habitat and brooding success in our region’s woodlands fortunately complements general management activities and recommendations that improves the vitality of our woods – controlling invasive plants, protecting vegetative regeneration from herbivory, and conserving forest parcels from land conversion. There are many resources available to help private woodland owners manage their woodlands and improve wildlife habitats for various species including the Forests for the Bay website. Take time this spring to listen for the flutey call of the wood thrush in your local woodlands. It will surely brighten your day and tell you a little more about the benefits these woods are providing.

Featured photo is from allaboutbirds.org / macaulaylibrary.org/asset/137906091.