The thrush fam­ily

From robins to blue­birds, this group of shy singers comes in sev­eral sizes and col­ors. Know which is which the next time a thrush vis­its your back­yard.

Birds & Blooms - - Contents - BY KENN AND KIM­BERLY KAUF­MAN

For most back­yard bird­ers, thrushes tend to fly un­der the radar. But you may be more fa­mil­iar with this var­ied group than you re­al­ize. Although they may not look it, Amer­i­can robins and blue­birds are both part of the same fam­ily of thrushes.

than two dozen species of thrushes have been ob­served in North Amer­ica. Many of them are rare, strong-fly­ing strays that have wan­dered far from Eu­rope, Asia or the trop­ics. But sev­eral com­mon types of na­tive thrushes are worth look­ing for, too.

Brown Thrushes

Six species of thrushes with brown backs and spot­ted chests live in forests across North Amer­ica. They sing from the trees but do most of their feed­ing on the ground, hop­ping and run­ning in the shad­ows. What they lack in bright col­ors, they more than make up for with the beauty of their songs.

Most brown thrush species live in the far north or in high moun­tains dur­ing sum­mer. The wood thrush is found all over the east­ern states, in forests or in back­yards with lots of trees and thick­ets. It’s the largest species of this thrush group (but still smaller than an Amer­i­can robin) and the one with the bold­est black spots on its chest. The foxy red­dish brown of its head and up­per back is hard to no­tice when it loi­ters in deep shade. Wood thrushes some­times ven­ture to the edges of lawns, mak­ing them much eas­ier to spot. Like most of their rel­a­tives, wood thrushes mi­grate to the trop­ics for the win­ter.

The only brown thrush you’re likely to see in the cold months is the her­mit thrush. Some stay through the win­ter all across the south­ern states, from Cal­i­for­nia to the Caroli­nas, and a few as far north as the Great Lakes. This thrush also mi­grates later in fall and ear­lier in spring than its rel­a­tives. Spot its red­dish brown tail, con­trast­ing with a dull brown back. When the her­mit thrush pauses in the open, it may raise and lower its tail while flick­ing its wings out to the side in a ner­vous-ap­pear­ing mo­tion.

Townsend’s Soli­taire

When you walk through open ju­niper woods in the West in win­ter, lis­ten for a small bell ring­ing in the dis­tance. This is the call­note of Townsend’s soli­taire, a slim gray thrush with a bold white eye-ring. Soli­taires are usu­ally seen alone, as their name sug­gests, perch­ing bolt up­right in the open. They fly out to catch in­sects in midair or flutter down to pick them from fo­liage. In cold weather, they eat mostly berries. For the sum­mer, most soli­taires move to the higher moun­tains. They build their nests on the ground, well hid­den un­der logs or in pro­tected spots among rocks.

Var­ied Thrush

At first glance, it’s easy to mis­take this thrush for a robin. A chunky, short­er­tailed bird, it’s more shy than its robin cousin. This bird hides in dense for­est cover, where it can be hard to see, but it’s worth the ef­fort to get a good look. The var­ied thrush has a strik­ing pat­tern, with an orange eye­brow, com­pli­cated orange wing stripes and a dark band across the chest.

Var­ied thrushes are most com­mon in the Pa­cific North­west. In sum­mer, they live in cool ever­green forests from south­ern Alaska to Idaho and north­west­ern Cal­i­for­nia. Males perch in tree­tops to sing a long breathy note that sounds as if they’re whistling and hum­ming at the same time.

For win­ter, most var­ied thrushes move south in the Pa­cific Coast states, though a few go off-course and fly to the east. Wan­der­ing var­ied thrushes have been seen in al­most ev­ery east­ern state and all along the At­lantic Coast, from south­ern Canada to Florida. Such a sur­pris­ing vis­i­tor could show up any­where. Make sure you take a sec­ond look at ev­ery robin that vis­its your back­yard. It just might be a var­ied thrush!

Wood thrush

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