American Robin

Turdus migratorius

By Andy McCormick

  • Length           10 in
  • Wingspan      17 in 
  • Weight           2.7 oz
  • AOU Band code    AMRO

Cheerily cheery cheerily cheery.  Cheerily cheer-up cheerily cheerio.  The morning song of the Robin is our avian alarm clock that begins just before dawn.  Now that we may be leaving our windows open a bit at night we become more aware of our neighborhood robin which typically sings from the same perch every morning.  Then on summer evenings we can also enjoy the robin’s evening song as dusk arrives.  For good reason the American Robin is one of our most beloved birds.  It is often the first bird children learn to identify as “Robin Red-Breast” and soon they also learn the color “Robin’s egg blue.”  This gregarious bird of our lawns and shrubs seeks earthworms and other invertebrates and gathers in large flocks in search of berries in the winter.   Other berry-eating birds such as waxwings and other thrushes can sometimes be found mixed in these flocks as they swoop in on Cotoneaster, Hawthorn and Juniper in the winter.

The American Robin is the only North American breeding species in the very large genus Turdus which worldwide has 66 species.  Turdus is Latin for thrush and migratorius relates to its migratory behavior.  American explains its natural range, and robin is thought to be a diminutive of the English name Robert, the English pet name for the bird (Holloway, 2003).  The red breast of the robin varies from deep, rich crimson to a peachy orange with males often darker.  The head also varies along with the breast from black to a dark gray.  There are white arcs above and below the eye.  The bill is yellow and the throat is streaked black and white.  The belly and undertail coverts are white.  The back is gray and the tail is black with white corners.   A western subspecies Turdus  migratorius caurinus breeds on the Olympic Peninsula and Vancouver Island and  is smaller and darker with only a narrow white tipping on their outer tail feathers.  The juvenile (pictured) is spotted dark below and is overall gray with the tips of white wing coverts visible.  It can sometimes seem a little surprising to see spotted thrushes on the lawn until one realizes they are juvenile robins.

The Robin is extremely adaptable and can nest anywhere from your backyard to almost any kind of shrubby or wooded area.  “Following the establishment of territories, thrushes form strong pair bonds that last throughout the breeding season usually for two broods” (Sibley, 2001).  The robin’s nest is a deep cup built with grasses and mud and holds 3 – 4 eggs, which are incubated for about two weeks.  In another two weeks the birds will fledge.  The eggshell color is an exquisite light blue that becomes glossy during incubation.  Both parents are aggressive in defending the nest and both also feed the young birds.  In contrast to other brown thrushes robins have benefitted from forest fragmentation due to agricultural development and the creation of subdivisions and their populations are doing very well.    
 

Photo by Mick Thompson

Photo by Mick Thompson

Varied Thrush

Ixoreus naevius

By Hugh Jennings


The Varied Thrush, 8”-10” long, is often called the Alaska robin.  Similar to the American robin, the male’s upperparts are slate gray, with rusty orange throat and breast.  Breast is interrupted by a broad black band, and the belly is off-white.  Female is similar but paler.  Their flight is more undulating than a robin.  Found in mountains all year, and locally in winter.  Varied thrushes come from nearby mountains and probably Canada and Alaska.  Breeds in damp conifer and mixed forests.

Song is not melodious, but nevertheless remarkable.  It has a single eerie whistled note, a long, drown-out sound, then a pause.  Whistles are repeated, but each one on a higher or lower pitch, with a pause after each note.  The varied thrush sings concealed high in a tree, its song echoing in the dark silent forest.

Photo by Mick Thompson

Photo by Mick Thompson

Swainson's Thrush

Catharus ustulatus

By Hugh Jennings

  • Length          5.5 in
  • Wingspan      14 in 
  • Weight           0.56 oz
  • AOU Band code    NRWS

The Swainson’s Thrush (SWTH) is 7 to 7-1/2 inches long. They are fairly common in the summer, usually arriving in our area from the middle of May to June. They head south in late summer for Mexico and South America. They are found in moist woods, swamps and thickets. The SWTH, both male and female are the same, uniformly brownish above and white below. They have buffy lores and a bold buffy eye ring, bright buffy breast with dark spots, and brownish-gray sides and flanks.


The song is a beautiful ascending series of flute-like notes that seem to disappear in the stratosphere. The call note is an abrupt "whit." The SWTH feeds on the ground and in foliage, and eats a variety of insects, spiders, and berries. Their nests are located from 2-40 ft. above the ground on horizontal branches. The nest is made of twigs, bark, moss, grass, plant fibers, lichens and skeletonized leaves. The female lays 3-5 eggs, light blue with brown spots and about 0.8 inches long. Incubation takes 11-14 days and the young fledge in another 10-14 days.


The Swainson’s Thrush is usually heard more than seen. Locally, it can frequently be heard at Marymoor Park, Farrel-McWhirter Park, Lake Hills Greenbelt, and Redmond Watershed Preserve.
 

Photo by Mick Thompson

Photo by Mick Thompson

Hermit Thrush

Catharus guttatus

By Andy McCormick

  • Length           6.75 in
  • Wingspan      11.5 in 
  • Weight           1.1 oz (31 g)
  • AOU Band code    HETH

A quiet bird of the forest floor much of the time, the Hermit Thrush has a song like heaven. “I pause reverently as the hush and stillness of the twilight come upon the woods… And as the hermit’s evening hymn goes up from the deep solitude below me, I experience that serene exaltation of sentiment of which music, literature, and religion are but faint types and symbols” (Burroughs). Its song is an ethereal rising and falling melody which each bird varies as it sings. You can hear the song of the Hermit Thrush recorded in Oregon at the Macauley Library. 

The Hermit Thrush sings from the lower levels of the forest. It flits on lower branches and forages in dry areas of the forest floor using some techniques used by other birds. While foraging for insects it will use quick wing flashes as some warblers do and at other times will vibrate one foot in a way similar to a plover. It flicks its tail raising it quickly while simultaneously making a chuck sound, then slowly lowering it (Dellinger, et al). “The bird signs its name with its tail” (Dunne). Watch a video of a Hermit Thrush hopping with tail flicks here.  

The rufous color is another way in which the tail sets the Hermit apart from other Catharus thrushes. The Pacific coastal subspecies tends to be browner-backed with a brighter rufous tail when compared to the montane subspecies of the Cascades which is grayer-backed with a less contrasting tail. The eye almost always has a ring even if it is narrow. The Hermit Thrush shares the genus Catharus, Greek for spotless or clean, with six other thrushes including two other Washington species: the Veery and Swainson’s Thrush. Its species name guttatus is from the Latin for drops or spotted, or speckled as from raindrops, in reference to its breast. 

The Hermit Thrush arrives in the breeding area in late March and April about six weeks before Swainson’s Thrush appears (Dellinger, et al). The males arrive first and defend their territory by singing. A rather bulky open cup nest is built by the female usually in a conifer about 3-12 feet above the ground (Kaufman). Three to four pale greenish blue eggs are deposited and the female incubates the eggs for about two weeks. Both parents feed the hatchlings and the young leave the nest after about 12 days. Often a second brood will be attempted. 

The Hermit Thrush is the only North American forest thrush species to show a stable and increasing population. It has increased by 75% over the past 40 years (Dellinger, et al). Its range extends throughout North America except in the most northern part of Canada. There is some debate about the reasons for this success. Some studies indicate that it does poorly after clear cut and forest thinning harvests, but others show the species will return after some second growth develops. It also seems to be a bird of the edges and forest edges have increased as more deep forest becomes fragmented. We’re glad for its success because now we can hear its song more often.
 

Photo by Mick Thompson

Photo by Mick Thompson