Even before I opened one bleary eye at dawn this morning, I heard him. - "Eeee - oh-layyy! bup bup -.....Layoieeee! ....bup bup EEEoh layyy, ...Leee ohieeEEE!"
Nothing means spring has arrived as much as the call of the wood thrush. Even though every morning now brings a welcome song that means an old friend has arrived back home. It was the excitable little eastern phoebe a few mornings ago - flicking his tail and calling repeatedly, "SqueeeGEEE!" ....causing me to regret a late night and little sleep. The rousing dawn chorus of all the feathered ones has declined greatly in my lifetime, but there is still a fevered pitch of sound to greet the start of the spring day. There's nothing you can do except give in to the clarion call and go outside to listen - and once the dogs hear you sigh and don your clothes, they are happy to reinforce your awakening, and accompany you!
The flutebird - (as I call him), and I have an uneasy relationship. I love his ethereal song, and the fact that this plucky little bird comes back to our woods each spring, migrating along one of the longest routes of all the neo-tropical songbirds, from the central americas of Panama to the mixed deciduous forest at the far reaches of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence range. This bird and his family seem invincible, migrating at night, all that distance, using the stars and the earths' magnetic field to orient their flight.
But I worry about him, on several fronts. Firstly, his species is in decline, and have been on the near-threatened list since the 1960's. When I was a front line environmentalist, my hearts' focus was on forests, and the need to retain large tracts of the landscape from fragmentation through road accesses and harvest. The wood thrush is one of the first birds to suffer when their woodland habitat is altered. Their absence from a supposed "habitat managed" forest is as strong an indicator of illness as the dead canary is in a coal mine. They return to the same home in each region every spring and winter, where they need a canopy forest and a leafy floor to forage. Any home they have to subsist in, other than this, decreases their food supply and leaves the birds vulnerable to predators; both those that kill the adult birds, and in the case of the ubiquitous cowbird, predate their nests. As we loudly decry the fragmentation of forests in Central America, we are as guilty of the same crime here in the north of the continent.
So even though my flutebird is a welcome spring blessing I wish I knew less of the story, which tempers hearing his song with a hint of sadness.
A more immediate anxiety I have once I hear this silly little bird each spring comes from being aware of the dangers I am directly responsible for. I say "silly" - because if this bird has one detrimental attribute, it would be that of owning an aggressive and reckless nature - it flies as if shot from a cannon, banking around obstacles and aero-planing in top-speed and exceedingly low glides through the forest. It delights to shortcut sharp corners and has no regard for buildings and windows. Thrush are territorial and will chase each other until totally winded and unable to fly, and they show off to each other in reckless flight even more.
You would think after that huge journey the agenda would designate some R and R for a few days? Huh! .....no chance of that, they puff out that dual vocal chord, sing their hearts out, and terrorize the other feathered foes with some kamikaze hazing.
After a few trial and errors I have finally arrived at a seemingly effective way to keep them from knocking themselves out on one particular window, the one at the corner of the house that seems to present an attractive shortcut. I have laced a cobweb of light twine across each section of the glass in a random pattern, and after many other options this has worked to keep the thrush family from diving into it. I reasoned that if birds dislike to fly through cobwebs, this lacing of twine would look like a huge malevolent one, and so far my theory seems to hold. It's fairly invisible from the inside, but presents a no-fly zone for these little fearless featherbrains.
So of course, once that clarion call comes through the dawn, sleep has no power to hold me in thrall. I have to go out into the dawn to listen and count all who have returned with last night's spring wind, and check all my contrived cobwebs to keep them as safe from harm as I am able. And those are the touchstones that let me sleep well at night, if I get to bed early enough!
It would be a shame to miss tomorrow's dawn chorus.