The ethereal flutelike ee-oh-lay song of the Wood Thrush is one of the most hauntingly beautiful sounds in the Eastern forest. Henry David Thoreau once wrote, "Whenever a man hears it, it is a new world and a free country, and the gates of heaven are not shut against him." The Wood Thrush is found in larger woodlands across Tennessee from mid-April through mid-October, and though its population has been declining, it is still fairly common. The breeding range extends across the eastern half of the United States and Wood Thrush migrate to Central America for the winter.
Description: This large forest thrush is just slightly smaller than an American Robin. The back of the head and nape are a bright orange-brown fading to olive-brown on the back and wings. The underparts are white with bold black spots; the legs are pink, and there is a bold white ring around the eye. Sexes are alike.
Weight: 1.6 oz
Voice: The song is a melodic series of flute-like ee-oh-lay phrases, ending in a trill either higher or lower in pitch. The call is a rapid pit pit pit.
- Veery are reddish, not bright orange-brown, on the head and nape, and have few indistinct spots on the chest.
- Hermit Thrushes have a reddish tail, but the rest of the upperparts are brown-olive. The spots on the chest are relatively indistinct and do not reach the belly.
- Brown Thrashers are similar in color but have a long tail, wingbars, and streaks, not spots, on the chest. They live in scrubby areas rather than forests, but the two species can overlap on migration.
Habitat: Breeds in a wide variety of deciduous and mixed forests but needs a well-shaded understory, small trees with low, exposed branches, and a fairly open forest floor with leaf litter. Winters mostly in primary, broad-leaved forests at lower elevations.
Diet: Invertebrates and fruits; the latter are especially important during migration.
Nesting and reproduction: Wood Thrushes often raise two broods of young in a single nesting season. In fragmented forests they are a fairly common host to the Brown-headed Cowbird resulting in lower nesting success.
Clutch Size: Usually 3 or 4 eggs with 2 to 5 being rare.
Incubation: The female alone incubates the eggs for about two weeks.
Fledging: Both parents feed the nestlings, and the young leave the nest when about two weeks old becoming independent in 3 to 4 weeks.
Nest: The female builds the cup-nest of dead leaves and grasses held together with mud and lined with rootlets and grasses. It takes her approximately 3 to 6 days to complete the nest. It is usually placed in the fork of a horizontal or upward-sloping branch, often the lowest branch of a tree. In Tennessee nest heights range from 5 to 25 feet, with an average of 10 feet.
Status in Tennessee: While the Wood Thrush is still a relatively common summer resident across Tennessee, the Breeding Bird Survey reports a significantly declining population trend since 1966 when the survey began. Destruction and fragmentation of forests in both breeding and wintering areas are factors in this decline. Wood Thrushes are present in the state from the first half of April until mid-October. The National Audubon Society has included the Wood Thrush as a Watch List Species.
Dynamic map of Wood Thrush eBird observations in Tennessee
- Thrushes have a complicated syrinx (song box) that allows them to sing two notes simultaneously, thus harmonizing with their own voice.
- Wood Thrushes are site faithful, often returning to the same breeding and wintering territory annually.
- Recent studies at Cornell indicate that increased amounts of acid rain make the Wood Thrush less likely to breed. One reason is that acid rain can cause calcium to leach from the soil, and in an environment of reduced calcium, female birds may lay eggs that are thin, brittle, and porous.
- The oldest known Wood Thrush in the wild was 8 years 11 months old.
Obsolete English Names: wood robin
Best places to see in Tennessee: Wood Thrushes may be found in most large tracks of deciduous forest across the state. High densities have been recorded in the Smoky Mountains and Cumberland Mountains.
For more information:
National Audubon Society Watchlist information
Population decline information
Nicholson, C. P. 1997. Atlas of Breeding Birds of Tennessee. Univ. Tennessee Press, Knoxville.
Roth, R. R., M. S. Johnson and T. J. Underwood. 1996. Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina), The Birds of North America (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.
Sibley, D. A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. A. A. Knopf, New York, NY.
Consider using the online bird checklist program at eBird to help us understand bird populations and distributions in Tennessee. Click here to see how.