Every habitat element in my pocket wildlife sanctuary contributes to a more biodiverse ecosystem. Hermit thrushes for example rarely visit backyards or bird feeders and prefer forest edges. There are no wooded lots around me - only sad, lawn-centric yards intentionally devoid of life. Amazingly, last spring a migrating hermit thrush briefly stopped by my rewilded yard.
Hermit thrushes will sometimes show up if you have a water source in your yard. Last summer I added a wildlife container pond in place of an overgrown firepit. This winter, a hermit thrush frequently visits the pond and spends time on the ground underneath the shrubs and dried stems of native plants. He’s an insect and berry eater so he probably also likes my expanding thicket of coralberry/Symphoricarpos orbiculatus. I like to imagine the migrating hermit thrush who found my rewilded yard last spring is the same one who returned this winter and was encouraged to stay around by the pond.
The breeding population of hermit thrushes are stable, but populations are declining regionally in New England. In Vermont where they were once so common, they became the state bird, hermit thrushes have declined 60% in the last 14 years. A reason for the overall bird (and insect) decline is habitat loss. This isn’t just happening in the countryside or suburbs when a new housing development destroys acres of natural areas. In cities like Atlanta, habitat fragmentation happens lot by lot where 84% of our dwindling tree canopy is on land zoned private residential.
In addition to lots being cleared by spec. builders, habitat is consistently destroyed by homeowners around me who keep their yards obsessively neat and tidy – meaning mature shrubs are routinely hacked down; overstory trees are limbed up, topped off or destroyed out of fear; leaves are violently blown, chopped, and thrown away; and wildlife is viewed as an inconvenience to be managed.
A neighbor once complained to me about red-winged blackbirds pooping in the yard when I shared how much I looked forward to their yearly return. This attitude of controlling or battling nature is shifting as the realities of a changing world are happening now, not a distant future. We’re moving towards a place where yards are prized for being modeled after wildlife sanctuaries and not golf courses – but we still have a long way to go to change the minds of folks still stuck in the landscaping aesthetic of the 1960s.
Hermit thrushes are an iconic American bird and have a deep history as a symbol of our cultural identity from the mid-nineteenth through mid-twentieth century. They have inspired generations of poets and natural history writers; including most famously Walt Whitman’s elegy to Abraham Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d". In the last 50 years both technology and urbanization have weakened our intimate relationship with the natural world and thrushes and other wildlife are no longer appreciated or used as cultural references. The timing of this shift coincides with the decline of so many wildlife species including birds. (Ecomusicology Review has a fascinating article expanding on this topic called “Scarce Inferior to the Nightingale”: Hermit Thrush Song as a Symbol of Cultural Identity in Anglophone North America)
We can help future generations be inspired by the ethereal song of the "American nightingale” when we restore habitat and tell stories about creating healthy ecosystems where we live. Basic ways to add habitat for hermit thrushes and other birds (especially winter birds in the South) are creating natural areas with fallen leaves and native plants, not using pesticides, maintaining a wildlife-friendly hedge row, growing native fruiting trees and shrubs, and adding water elements.
I hope my new hermit thrush friend stays safe wherever he goes when he’s not poking around the leaves in my chemical-free yard; hiding in nearby shrubs; eating coralberries and chokeberries (Aronia arbutifolia); or taking a drink and dip in my little wildlife container pond.
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