Wood thrush returns

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(Host) Vermont’s state bird, the hermit thrush, and another closely related thrush, the wood thrush, can be heard singing in the forest these days. Commentator Tom Slayton has some thoughts on the decline of these birds and on our many connections to them.

(Slayton) As I was sitting quietly beside an open window, the song of the wood thrush came drifting through the new green leaves and into the room where I sat.

Not only was it sweet and mysterious and beautiful – it was proof that we were blessed: we had a wood thrush nearby.

We used to hear many wood thrushes and hermit thrushes. They seemed to spend every morning from mid-May to mid-June singing in the forested park up the hill from my home. What their song actually said to other birds had almost nothing to do with beauty. It was a practical message: “This is my territory; stay away,” it said to other male birds. At the same time, to female wood thrushes it said: “Here I am, an unattached male! Want to be my bride and make babies?”

As I said, a practical message. Still, to listening human ears, those ethereal flutings are sublimely beautiful.

The problem is that, in recent years, they’ve become scarcer. The wood thrushes and hermit thrushes that sang so sweetly up the hill from me are now only a memory. I don’t hear them any more.

And it’s not just me, or my hearing – scientists have documented a decline in wood thrush numbers worldwide. There are fewer of them. Lately, I hear the first wood thrush every year with a sense of relief – at least we haven’t completely lost the battle.

The wood thrush is one of the many birds that winter in the tropics and migrate back to North America each spring to nest and breed. Scientifically, they’re all called “neotropical migrants,” and the wood thrush is sort of the poster-bird for their alarming decline.

What is causing it? Although scientists do not know exactly, they believe that the cause is related to the loss of forest habitat in the tropics and forest fragmentation in the birds’ New England breeding range.

Vermont author Julia Alvarez has written a charming little book about the role that coffee-growing plays in the loss of bird habitat in her homeland of the Dominican Republic. It is called “A Cafecito Story” and tells the story of organic, shade-grown coffee. Modern coffee plantations clear-cut the forest and use pesticides and chemical fertilizers on their plantation-grown coffee. But coffee grown the old-fashioned way, in the shade of the forest, can be produced without using chemicals. And the migrating birds survive.

“It’s amazing how much better coffee grows, when sung to by birds,”
Alvarez writes. She might add, how much better coffee tastes when we, drinking it, are sung to by birds.

We like to think of ourselves as individuals, but in fact, we live in a deeply interconnected world. Our actions count. The coffee we drink, the land choices we make, determine what birds survive in the tropics – and which birdsongs we hear in a Vermont spring.

That’s part of the reason I was so delighted to hear, once again this past week, the song of the wood thrush. It was both a warning and an
affirmation, a song, against the odds, of hope.

Tom Slayton is editor of Vermont Life magazine.

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