As a rancher in the badlands of North Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt loved to listen to the call of the western meadowlark.

“Its song has length, variety, power and rich melody,” the future U.S. president said, “and there is in it sometimes a cadence of wild sadness, inexpressively touching. … To me it comes forever laden with a hundred memories and associations, with the sight of the dim hills across lonely plains, with the scent of flowers on the sunlit prairie … with the strong thrill of eager and buoyant life.”

The meadowlark still broadcasts its “rich melody” in Minnesota, too. And, like Roosevelt, Minnesotans will rekindle memories of previous springs and the “strong thrill of eager and buoyant life” that the sounds and sightings of songbirds suggest.

Yet, these are struggling times for songbirds.

The fate of the wood thrush, for example, is of particular concern. The songbird’s population has dropped more than 50 percent since 1966, according to the National Audubon Society, primarily because it has lost habitat to forest fragmentation.

The wood thrush is a close relative of the American robin. The family resemblance shows up in their mannerisms and plump body shape. The thrush, known for its flute-like song, is distinguished by the cinnamon coloring on its back. Henry David Thoreau was a fan. “The thrush alone declares the immortal wealth and vigor that is in the forest,” Thoreau wrote.

The vigor of the forest — and, thus, of the wood thrush — isn’t only a regional problem. Minnesota falls on the western boundary of the wood thrush’s breeding habitat. The bird prefers large tracts of contiguous forest, which is harder to find both in their main breeding areas of the eastern United States and in the wintering tropical rain forests of Central America, an area undergoing intense deforestation.

Better to think of the wood thrush and other songbirds as birds of the world. Their followers do, and they say a global perspective on tracking the songbird is called for to learn its migration patterns. That knowledge can help preserve habitat and healthy populations, according to the conservation research mission of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center.

In an example of “think global, act local,” groups like the Audubon Society and the migratory bird center have protected birds and their habitat for everyone’s benefit.

“Birds connect us to nature like no other animal,” said Pete Marra, director of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. “They are an everyday reminder that we are part of the natural world. As species decline or disappear, the integrity of Earth’s tapestry, of which we are a part, becomes compromised. Songbirds are a critical reflection of ecosystem health. Lose them, and we compromise ourselves.”

The bird center’s reach is the Western Hemisphere, and it joins with countries as well as with local groups and agencies to track songbirds.

Minnesota study

The center’s mission brought Smithsonian scientists to Minnesota last summer. A pair teamed with the St. Croix National Riverway, the Warner Nature Center and the Carpenter Nature Center on a two-year wood thrush project. The project, with financial support from the St. Croix Valley Foundation’s Riverway Endowment Fund, uses geolocators to track wood thrush migration patterns.

Geolocators collect and store positional readings from satellites. Twenty-four tags were affixed to wood thrushes in Minnesota last summer. Similar tagging efforts were done in Indiana, Kentucky and other breeding states. As the birds migrated south, wintered-over and presumably return this spring, scientists are hoping to recapture the birds to study the data. The tags help track the large-scale movements of the wood thrushes, showing where they spent the winter.

A bird center study showed more than half of the wood thrush species winter in a region from Honduras to Costa Rica. The study estimated that half of all wood thrushes in North America migrate south through Florida in fall, with about 73 percent funneling north in spring through a narrow span along the central U.S. Gulf Coast.

Learning about these migratory networks is a crucial step for protecting all songbirds. When conservation “hot spots” are identified, local efforts can help the species as a whole.

Room for optimism

Sound conservation techniques help more than songbirds, said Lori Naumann, a nongame wildlife program information officer for the Minnesota DNR. “Preserving and enhancing forest habitat, as well as aquatic and open land habitats, help multiple species. The nongame program focuses on those species in greatest conservation need, many of which are birds.”

Amid the songbirds’ setbacks, there is room for optimism.

“There is some evidence of the Midwest’s wood thrush population increasing,” said Paul Smithson of the Warner Nature Center. “At Warner, we always assumed there were one or two pairs of wood thrushes. We were excited when the researchers caught more than 30.”

Said Naumann: “When you look at success stories of restoration efforts, swans, peregrine falcons, bald eagles and bluebirds have all made a comeback in the last few decades.”

As for the wood thrush, “We are waiting for the birds to come back this June so we can recapture them and find out where they have been,” Marra said. “We hope for a return rate of 20 percent. So we don’t learn anything until they come back … if they come back.”

This sense of optimism remains tied to effort, funding and vigilance. That, and the “inexpressively touching” notes that Roosevelt observed in the sweet sounds of the songbird.


Jim Umhoefer is a travel and outdoor writer and photographer from Sauk Centre, Minn.