Bay Journal

Hermit thrush’s sweet song haunts our woods, souls

  • By Michael Burke on April 01, 2010
The hermit thrush, which eats only insects in the summer, will expand its diet to fruit in the winter, when insects are scarce.  (Lee Karney / U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

Brittle dead leaves disintegrated underfoot. Last year's vibrant green was another step closer in its transformation to rich, black soil. Soon it would be nourishing a fresh crop of plant life.

Nearby, a solitary bird was foraging, probing the mud-brown litter with its bill. Hidden below the detritus were the nascent buds of spring and a rapidly-growing population of insects. The bird gave a quick flick up of its russet tail, and then gradually brought it back down.

The bird had a brown back, head and wings. When its head bobbed up again, it was facing me. I could see a white breast with black spots that gradually gave way to an all-white belly. I was looking at a hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus) as it searched the forest floor for the insects that are the staple of its warm weather diet.

Hermit thrushes have the same body shape as their close relative, the American robin. At about 6 inches from the tip of its bill to the end of its tail, the hermit thrush is noticeably smaller than its cousin. Like robins, both sexes look alike.

Thrushes stand upright on relatively long legs. Those long legs are well-adapted for kicking through the duff, enabling the birds to grab food with their slender bills.

In addition to the hermit thrush and American robin, there are a number of other thrushes that routinely inhabit the woods of the Chesapeake region, including the wood thrush, veery and Swainson's thrush. The hermit thrush is the only one with a spotted breast that can reliably be seen around here in the winter.

And what a winter it has been. Record snowfalls, gale force winds, and even flooding. Unfortunately, life in Washington, D.C. has mirrored the bitter weather.

As I looked around at the earliest signs of spring, I was thankful that the endless winter had finally passed. The trees that survived heavy snow and wind were now blushing with pinks, purples and whites. The skunk cabbage had emerged from muddy stream banks, joining the trout lilies, spring beauties, snowdrops and early mayapples. The barren landscape was once again alive.

The hermit thrush is a handsome bird. Its spotted breast somehow seems festive, and that reddish tail provides another note of visual interest. But the bird's real glory is not its looks but its song.

A haunting, flutelike voice lifts through the woods when these birds are staking out their territory or looking for a mate. In this region, April and May are prime months for hearing this wonderful singer.

Hermit thrushes winter from the Chesapeake to the Gulf of Mexico and along the Pacific Coast into Mexico. As the weather warms, these short-distance migrants head north. Most of these birds will build their nests in the forests of the mid-Atlantic, New England, Canada and the U.S. Rockies.

Interestingly, the birds in the East construct their nests on the ground, while those in the Rockies and along the Pacific Coast erect theirs in the low branches of a tree. As this variation of behavior suggests, there are a number of subspecies of hermit thrushes. Blessedly, they all share that heavenly voice.

In the summer, hermit thrushes eat virtually nothing but insects as they forage on the ground. During winter, though, bugs are in short supply. The thrush then expands its diet to include fruits.

As the weather warms here, the number of insects grows exponentially. The brown leaf litter only looks lifeless. The thrush here in the Maryland woods was finding plenty to eat. I just wished it would hurry up and eat. I wanted the bird to get on with its sweet song.

Thrushes are among the most beautiful singers in the avian world. The wood thrush, with its brown body and black spotted breast, closely resembles the hermit thrush in both looks and singing ability. The veery, too, is a wonderful songster with flute-like tones.

In April, 1865, not far from here, Walt Whitman wrote perhaps his most famous poem, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." As the poet wandered through the woods grieving over Lincoln's assassination, he found great comfort in the hermit thrush's "liquid and free and tender" song. The bird became a central image in the poem.

After this long, cold winter and its considerable discontent, I find myself agreeing with Whitman. My past sometimes haunts me, but my history also teaches me.

The hermit thrush's sweet yet mournful song mingles sadness and joy. As the bird picks its way through the dead vegetation looking for the emerging insects, it's clear that a new spring is upon us.

Out of the barren landscape, hope takes root once again.

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About Michael Burke

Mike Burke is an amateur naturalist who lives in Cheverly, MD.

Read more articles by Michael Burke

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