It’s breeding season, and the District of Columbia’s official bird, the wood thrush, is back in town. Its unusually beautiful call begins just before dawn and can be heard throughout the day in Rock Creek Park and other heavily wooded areas.
It’s understandable if you think bald eagle when asked about the identity of the official DC bird. The eagle is the designated national bird, and just as the federal government’s massive presence overshadows DC self-rule, the diminutive wood thrush — no bigger than a robin — is no match for the sizable eagle in the public’s consciousness.
The flutelike song of the male wood thrush, once you know it, is unmistakable, but don’t worry if you’ve never seen one. DC’s official bird only since 1967, the migratory wood thrush lives less than six months in the district, where it finds a mate, nests and raises its young.
The male and female aren’t happy being close to humans during breeding, though. They are well-camouflaged, with their similar earth-tone plumage and prefer well-hidden, leafy places to open backyards.
After its young are fledged and independent, the wood thrush flies back to Mexico and Central America in the early fall, not to appear again until spring.
The wood thrush is also elusive because its numbers in the DC metro region have dropped sharply in the last half century, according to studies by the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, MD. Since 1966, when the center began its North American Breeding Bird Survey, wood thrush numbers have declined 2–3 percent annually in Virginia and Maryland.
These facts make me less embarrassed to confess I’m not certain I’ve ever seen the bird, even though I’ve worked for a local Audubon group for seven years and spend a lot of time in parks.
So, how did this relatively unknown, elusive creature — especially compared with Virginia’s cardinal or Maryland’s Baltimore oriole — become DC’s avian symbol?
The brown and white speckled wood thrush is a superstar in the U.S. birding world. People swoon while hearing its melodic eeh-oh-lay song. And, people in DC have been swooning over this bird for quite a long time.
The story stretches back to at least the mid-19th century, when writer John Burroughs, who ranks with Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and others in the pantheon of scribbling American naturalists, moved to DC from New York.
“On the 1st of May I go to the Rock Creek or Piny (sic) Branch region to hear the Wood Thrush. I always find him by this date leisurely chanting his lofty strain,” Burroughs wrote in 1868. The bird was a “prince” of the forest, with “regal grace” and a “gentle, high-bred air.” Nice complements, though hardly as enthusiastic as Thoreau’s hymn a few decades earlier:
“Whenever a man hears it (the wood thrush) he is young, and Nature is in her spring; wherever he hears it, it is a new world and a free country, and the gates of Heaven are not shut against him.”
The great man of avian portraiture, John James Audubon, in the text below his wood thrush illustration in the Birds of America series, declared:
“Kind reader, you now see before you my greatest favourite of the feathered tribes of our woods. To it I owe much. How often has it revived my drooping spirits.”
The ardor of these early nature writers was in keeping with the spirit of the age. People did find deliverance, transcendence and all manner of epiphanies in the outdoors, especially as the United States began to industrialize, level vast tracks of forest and turn rivers into sewers.
DC, though, had little manufacturing in the 19th century, and Rock Creek, with its deep valleys, was not suitable for development in the building boom after the Civil War. The wood thrush and its habitat were further protected after 1,800 acres of the watershed became a national park in 1890.
During the 1920s, the DC Audubon Society sponsored a contest to see which bird should become the official representative of the capital. The wood thrush was the “overwhelming favorite,” the society noted a few years later and joined with the DC Federation of Women’s Clubs in urging the city’s government to designate the wood thrush the District’s bird.
At that time, the district was run by a three-person board of commissioners, appointed by the federal government, which operated under almost dictatorial congressional oversight. The commissioners responded in late 1927 to the Audubon/Women’s Club campaign by taking the position “they had no authority to designate any bird as the official representative of the District.”
The campaign for the wood thrush continued sporadically, and apparently some Washingtonians thought the bird had been crowned in the 1920s. (At press time, Wikipedia lists the designation as having taken place in 1938.)
Just after World War II, as the DC Audubon Society incorporated itself and took on a broader environmental mission beyond just protecting birds. It also named its new monthly journal The Wood Thrush.
Among the contributing editors of The Wood Thrush was a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service writer named Rachel Carson, who later wrote Silent Spring, which revealed the dangers of pesticides and helped to awaken the modern U.S. environmental movement. It’s not known if Carson came up with the name for the journal, but one Carson biography mentions the wood thrush as a bird her mother introduced her to on nature excursions at her childhood home in Pennsylvania.
Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, and by that time some of her DC Audubon colleagues were prominent members of the capital’s intelligentsia. Society president Irston Barnes, whose day jobs included teaching economics at Columbia University, wrote a weekly column for the Washington Post. It was inevitable that one of the pieces would touch on the unofficial official bird:
“Away from the frustrations and fatigues of the day, from the clangor and concern of the city, from the heat and hurt of human affairs, beside the wooded stream at dusk, the simple fluency of the Wood Thrush’s three and four-note phrases, so rich, full, and flute-like, bring rest to the mind and peace to the spirit.” (July 1953)
The DC Audubon Society also boasted an admiral or two, and more than a few ex-military types whose softer side was reflected in birding. Charlton Ogburn, a veteran of the Merrill’s Marauders unit that fought in hellish jungle conditions behind Japanese lines during World War II, wrote a paean to the wood thrush in which he likened its song to what one would hear in concert hall:
“This instrumentalist sounds first the three notes of an “E-minor chord, next the three of a C natural, then proceeds through a variety of harmonic structures, sometimes sounding a vibrato on a tiny cymbal.”
And the bird is such a virtuoso that he can mimic a classical duet:
“There are passages in a Wood Thrush’s song played at quarter speed that one would swear, if not assured otherwise, were delivered by two birds singing simultaneously.” Or excel at three instruments. Its song has a: “heart-melting effect…in tones touching those of flute, carillon and piano.” (— The Adventure of Birds, 1976)
The nomination of the wood thrush for official bird came back before the DC commissioners just before Christmas 1966, a time of year when there are no wood thrush in district. But empowerment was in the air — it was only about six months from the time when President Lyndon Johnson would take the first steps toward granting the District home rule.
A Washington Post editorialist mocked the nomination, writing that it was based on the clamor of “nostalgic folk, pining for a rural past never to return.” The wood thrush “has deserted us” the writer claimed. “Who ever sees a wood thrush pecking the glass of his high-rise apartment window? Who can hear its wood notes above the din of our traffic?” The writer suggested the common crow or ubiquitous starling as more appropriate.
Au contraire, rejoined William Grayson, then president of the Audubon Naturalist Society (the renamed DC Audubon Society). Audubon members had seen and heard its “sweet and bell-like song” all over the city, including parks, backyards and other green areas, he wrote to the newspaper. The Post “seems ready to concede defeat on their preservation…while the battle to save them is still going on.”
In between this war of words, the commissioners took action Jan. 26, 1967. “Scarcely had the wood thrush been proclaimed than reporters began calling to inquire just exactly how many still reside in the District,” the Audubon society reported.
The wood thrush remains an object of enchantment among DC area naturalists. Takoma Park resident and children’s book author/illustrator Lynne Cherry, who published Flute’s Journey: The Life of a Wood Thrush in 1997, mobilized her young readers to write letters and help save from development a 500-acre tract in Prince George’s County that provides critical nesting habitat for the wood thrush and other migrating songbirds.
“The song of the wood thrush can cast a spell drawing young people into the forest, wondering, ‘who is making that magical music?’ ” Lynne said. “The song motivates us to protect our sacred natural places, since we are inclined to save the things we love.”
Though I had heard the song many times growing up, I didn’t know it was the wood thrush until the late 1990s, when I joined the staff of the Audubon Naturalist Society. One day, re-organizing the archives in the hot attic of the society’s headquarters in Chevy Chase, I came upon old copies of The Wood Thrush. That motivated me to memorize the bird’s song, and I enjoyed hearing it at the society’s 40-acre Woodend Sanctuary.
Only recently did I learn of the challenges the wood thrush faces. The survey of bird numbers by the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center doesn’t even target the District, and the reason is telling: Bird counters do their work by car and need to be able to stop along the shoulders of rural or semi-rural roads to listen for calls. “There’s no habitat left along roadsides,” or shoulders, for that matter, in DC for the surveyors to use, said David Ziolkowski Jr., program ornithologist at Patuxent.
Though Ziolkowski still sees the occasional wood thrush in Rock Creek Park, it’s evident to him and other researchers that the bird’s numbers are shrinking because of the loss of so many wooded areas in the region, along with a corresponding disappearance of forest sanctuaries in Mexico and Central America.
And, the fragmentation of U.S. Eastern forests caused by suburban sprawl has boosted the population of the parasitic cowbird, which doesn’t require dense tree cover and will lay eggs in wood thrush nests. The wood thrush mistakenly protects those eggs and feeds the cowbird young — who are larger and more aggressive, frequently causing wood thrush hatchlings to starve.
Greg Butcher, one of the federal government’s migratory bird experts, surveyed an area of Rock Creek Park near Peirce Mill several years ago to count the pairs of courting wood thrush. He was surprised to find only a handful.
“Among all the migrants, the plight of the wood thrush is particularly worrisome,” Butcher said. “The population is declining at an estimated rate of 2.3 percent a year in North America — which brings the population down to 9 million individuals, about 30 percent of what it was 40 years ago.”
A number of efforts are under way both locally and internationally to help the wood thrush. The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center has created a shade-grown coffee campaign, which advocates switching to beans that aren’t from clear-cut plantations in Central America and elsewhere. Migrant birds desperately need tree cover in their winter homes.
The National Audubon Society has named the wood thrush a ”priority species” for conservation along the Atlantic Flyway, which stretches from the eastern Canadian coast south to Argentina. The society is working to improve government forestry practices and tax incentives for forest preservation. Audubon also urges cat owners to keep their pets indoors, as predatory felines are responsible for millions of bird deaths annually.
A few decades ago, the sight of a bald eagle in the DC area would have been very rare. Today, with federal protection and the decreased use of certain pesticides, eagles are breeding along the Anacostia River. Here’s hoping DC’s long-admired wood thrush can make a similar comeback. And that I may finally see one.