The Song of the Wood Thrush
We are lucky to have the lovely Wood Thrush, with its ethereal song, in Glen Providence Park! It is a “species of conservation concern” due to a 56% drop in population since the 1960’s, largely because of forest fragmentation and acid rain. The International Wood Thrush Conservation Alliance is being formed to study ways to protect the Wood Thrush along with other birds and wildlife.
The Wood Thrush is reclusive- you are more likely to hear it than see it. It hops through leaf litter on the forest floor, probing for insects. I first heard its song this year on May 1, as it returned from wintering in Central America. Interestingly, Cornelius Weygandt wrote in 1910 for the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club’s journal Cassinia: “In any year it is apt to be within a day or two of May before you hear him sing, and May itself before its chant attains its fullest power.” Cornelius wrote a whole essay about the Wood Thrush, and in fact many have written about it through the years…
Its flute-like song has been enchanting visitors to the park since at least the 1800’s, when Glen Providence Park was called Scroggie Valley, and the Wood Thrush’s common name was wood-robin. T. Chalkley Palmer wrote in 1889: “It was hereabouts [along the current Mountain Laurel Trail] that I first heard the wood-robin strike a note from his harp. It is the perfection of music when heard in its place and season… the note of the wood-robin is the spontaneous voice of Nature, devoid of artifice, clear as a bell.”
And then there is Henry David Thoreau: “The thrush alone declares the immortal wealth and vigor that is in the forest… Whenever a man hears it he is young, and Nature is in her spring; whenever he hears it, it is a new world and a free country, and the gates of heaven are not shut against him.” Thoreau also said, “He touches a depth in me which no other bird’s song does,” and he called the wood thrush “a Shakespeare among birds.”
What did famed ornithologist John James Audubon miss while traveling in Europe in the 1800’s? He was homesick for “the sweet melodious strains of that lovely recluse, my greatest favorite, the Wood Thrush.” There are many more quotes out there- I won’t list them all!
How does the Wood Thrush make this song that inspires so many? The Smithsonian explains, “The legendary “ee-o-lay” song of the Wood Thrush is actually a one-bird duet. Because the Wood Thrush has the equivalent of two sets of “vocal cords,” it is able to sing two overlapping songs at once. In other words, the Wood Thrush sings with two voices simultaneously.”
You can listen to a sample of its song here, but it is best appreciated in the woods, with all its variation, repetition, and ethereal beauty. Listen for it the next time you visit Glen Providence Park!
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website
“The Wood Thrush” by Cornelius Weygandt in Delaware Valley Ornithological Club’s journal Cassinia
National Geographic website
Smithsonian National Zoological Park website