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A Tale of Two Habitats
One of nature’s true miracles occurs every spring and fall. And it presents a double challenge: to protect birds at both ends of their incredible journeys.


The mysterious movements of the birds that fill our forests with a mezzo forte of flutes, chirps, and whistles each summer have intrigued us for centuries. Aristotle postulated that redstarts vanished in autumn because they transformed into robins and that swallows spent the winter hibernating underground. But the advent of radio transmitters, radar, and satellites has solved the riddle: Many of the songbirds that we northerners have come to know are of two spheres, breeding under our noses and waiting out the cold months in the subtropical south. The secret behind their supposed disappearing acts? They make their perilous journeys while we sleep.

Today many of these avian migrants are fading away—literally. U.S. Breeding Bird Surveys indicate
that some songbird populations may have plunged by as much as half in just four decades. Take the wood thrush, for instance, a species so emblematic of the eastern United States that a spring walk in the woods without hearing its tranquil trill would be like a day at the beach without the soothing sound of the surf.

Sadly, with its habitat being squeezed on both ends of its migration, the wood thrush’s song is growing faint—as two Audubon veterans, Frank Graham and Susan McGrath, report in this issue from two of its summer and winter strongholds, Vermont and Belize. Yet they also find reassurance from the people they meet along the way who are determined that our woods won’t fall silent anytime soon.—Rene Ebersole

To read about the wood thrush’s breeding grounds in Vermont, click here.

To read about the wood thrush’s wintering grounds in Belize, click here.

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State of the Bird: Wood thrush
(Hylocichla mustelina)

Looks: Three-quarters the size of an American robin. Rich foxy-brown above, brightest on head; white below with bold black spots.

Behavior: Forages mostly on the ground, seeking insects and other invertebrates. Also feeds on berries and small fruits. Males perform beautiful flutelike song, eeyoh-lay, in spring and summer.

Range and habitat: Nests in moist deciduous and mixed forests in eastern United States and southeastern Canada; winters mostly in the tropics of southern Mexico and Central America.

Status: Breeding Bird Surveys suggest an overall population decline since 1966, averaging almost two percent each year, with decreases more pronounced in the eastern part of its breeding range.

Threats: Loss of habitat is a problem on both breeding and wintering grounds. Even where nesting habitat remains, fragmentation of that habitat has increased the threat of cowbird parasitism, while the effects of acid rain are further reducing nesting success.

Outlook: Not in immediate danger, but protection of large blocks of habitat is essential for long-term survival.

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Book Excerpt: Songbird Journeys
A new book takes off with a detailed perspective on migrating birds and their admirers.

Hear, Hear!
Listen to the wood thrush's enchanting call.

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