We are migrants from Central America: Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala. We’ve come by night, evading the searchlights, crossing borders without papers, heedless of the headlines regarding our fellow travelers, and the fierce political rhetoric in a language that we don’t understand. And now, we’re hiding in the woods of New Hampshire and other New England states, frequently heard but largely unseen, desiring to eat, breed and raise our young in a place of peace and safety, where food is plentiful. Have you seen us? Maybe not, but if you’ve heard us, your likely to pause and marvel at the beauty of our song. Who are we?
We’re wood thrushes-- central American migrants that make New England our summer breeding ground.
Wood thrushes are a medium sized chestnut brown song-bird with a speckled white chest. Spring migration brought some back to our neck of the woods about two weeks ago, and I had the pleasure yesterday morning of hearing their haunting call at the conservation center. The male has a three-part song that once you’ve heard, you’ll always be listening for again. It has been described as ethereal and flutelike. It is always in a minor key, and often begins on a different note with each repetition. Each year when I hear and photograph this little bird, I wonder if it’s the same one, or maybe a family member, to the ones I saw and heard the year before. It’s likely that it is, and this never fails to awe me.
Bird researchers have used geolocators to track the migratory path of wood thrushes, and have found that during the spring migration, they travel on average, 2,300 miles in two weeks. That this small bird with the lovely voice wintered with toucans and howler monkeys, then made its way thousands of miles, from Central American rainforests to the Mill Brook on our floodplain in Concord, where I can see it now rummaging about in the leaf litter, then sitting, more or less, in the same tree as last year -- well. It fills me with wonder.
The wood thrush has been the focus of particular scrutiny by researchers as its numbers have declined dramatically since the mid 1960s. One reason for this is habitat loss, both in their winter home, and here in New England. The wood thrush is apparently very sensitive to forest fragmentation. For their breeding grounds, they prefer deciduous woods with a moist ground, running water and a high understory cover. As woods are fragmented by development, these thrushes have less of what they require to successfully breed. In their Central American winter residence, habitat has been lost to deforestation --in part because of big agriculture and the proliferation of sun-grown coffee farming to feed our massive consumer demand for Arabica coffee.
I think about all of this when I get out of my car at the Conservation Center and hear the thrush’s clear musical notes before I’ve even left the parking lot for the trailhead. I think about migration and its human counterpart, immigration. About those for whom national borders define lives, and those that can fly above them with impunity. About biodiversity and human diversity. I think about my amazing good fortune in the cosmic lottery, because where one is born is a gift to some and a life sentence for others. I think about how decisions made in corporate boardrooms, by multinational companies and, ultimately, by all of us as consumers --of housing, coffee, pineapples, and the hardwood flooring we want in our homes-- affect, in ways we don’t usually imagine, the small migrants whose songs make our woodlands open air cathedrals every spring. I think about how small this world of ours really is. And finally, I wonder what’s in my coffee cup.
For more on the relationship between songbirds and coffee farming, and tips for buying sustainable and bird friendly coffee: https://abcbirds.org/help-save-wood-thrush-drink-bird-friendly-coffee/
For two excellent children’s books about the wood thrush:
Welcome, Brown Bird by NH author and conservationist Mary Lyn Ray-- a beautifully illustrated story that shows the smallness and interconnectedness of our world through the relationship that two boys, one in Central America and one in New England, have with the same brown bird, whose return each child anxiously awaits at different times of year on different hemispheres. Amazon | Independent Bookstores