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A Bird in Hand

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A trio of thrushes

For many of us who fancy birds, the American Robin (click here for photo and birdsong) is the poster child for the thrush family. With their rotund build, upright stance, and a bill that is perpetually pointed upward in a haughty gesture, they are the archetypal thrush. And they seem to be everywhere! Fields, lawns, forest edges, wherever their favorite prey, the earthworm, can be delicately but vigorously tugged from the damp earth. Even now, in August, we can see the dark-capped males and the slightly more pale females being joined by their youngsters, who sport attractive spotted breasts. In fact, this spotted breast is a unifying feature of the thrush family, many of whom retain it in their adult plumage.

The Robin is also our harbinger of spring. If you are observant, you will notice that the males are the first to appear, often when snow is still on the ground. Their goal is to establish a breeding territory before the females arrive in the following weeks. And then it is down to work, for our summer migrants do not come to our fair lands for vacation, for time in the sun spent by the lakeside. Instead, it is the serious and all-consuming task of raising a family and perpetuating their specie. It’s all work and no play, the delightful and memorable songs of the male Robin to the contrary.

The American Robin is also the most widespread member of the thrush family, partly because of their love of sprawling housing developments! The burgeoning growth of suburbia around American urban centers, with their requisite swaths of vast lawns and trimmed parks has served the needs of the Robin perfectly. This is one specie that has gained from human encroachment and development.

Another member of the thrush family that you are more apt to hear than to see is Swainson’s Thrush (click here for photos and birdsong). This bird is a denizen of our coniferous forests and its ethereal song is probably its most distinctive feature. Anyone who has gone on a hike or spent a day in the woods will have heard the male sing his flute-like, melodious song that seems to wind upward in three, clear bars of music. The bird itself is less distinctive than the Robin, though he retains the definitive thrush features. The Swainson’s is counted among the spotted thrushes (genus Catharus), which includes its cousins the Hermit Thrush and the Veery, both of which are also found in “our neck of the woods.”

As a point of comparison, Swainson’s Thrush is smaller than the Robin and carries a brownish, almost olive-colored jacket and tail coordinated with a drab yellowish breast with spots that match the jacket. Many birds might also have a tinge of rust color. Its outfit is complete with a white belly and distinctive eye-rings that give the bird a “spectacled” look. Very smart and wonkish looking, though retaining the arrogant profile of the thrush family.

The last specie of thrush that I want to include in this brief overview of local birds is one of my favorites: Townsend’s Solitaire (click here for photo and birdsong). Here is an odd bird! Common, though less-commonly seen, the Townsend Solitaire is generally a year-round resident. Larger than the Swainson’s and smaller than the Robin, the Townsend Solitaire still retains the thrush profile, albeit in a slimmer and trimmer package. It is a plain gray, though still handsome, bird with distinctive salmon-colored barring on its wings and a long, dark tail framed with white edging.

But what is most distinctive about this peculiar bird is its song, which is sung by both males and females and may be heard throughout the year as these birds defend both a summer and a winter territory. To my ears, the song of Townsend’s Solitaire is one of being perpetually practiced, but never mastered; a mangled interpretation of the Black-headed Grosbeak’s lovely warble. Weird, but still beautiful.

Townsend’s Solitaires prefer forested hillsides, perhaps alongside a stream or river. Unlike most if its cousins it nests on the ground or under an overhang. If you see a bird that reminds you of a thrush that somehow was crossed with a Northern Mockingbird, you’ve probably seen a Townsend’s Solitaire.

There are also other thrush in our area: the Western and the Mountain bluebird, as well as the Varied Thrush with its eerie trill and distinctive black chest band. Regardless of their stripe, the thrush family is a treasured addition to the rich and varied heritage of birds we enjoy in our area and who heap, through color and song, beauty upon beauty.

Photos: Top, American Robin, photo by Lee Karney, USFWS, Middle, Swainson’s Thrush, photo by Dan Sudia, Bottom, Townsend’s Solitaire photo by Dale and Marian Zimmerman. Visit our website at RiverJournal.com to see links to these photos in color, plus links to their birdsong.

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

birds, outdoors, American Robin, thrush, Swainsons Thrush, Townsends Solitaire

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