Thrushes – Overview


The thrush family (Turdidae) is a group of medium-small to medium-large songbirds represented in our area by five species: two big colorful thrushes (robin and varied thrush), two small brown thrushes (hermit and Swainson’s thrush), and the western bluebird. All have small, thin bills for feeding primarily on bugs and berries. This means that thrushes are generally not attracted to backyard birdfeeders offering sunflower and other seeds, but they can be tempted by offerings of live mealworms or by birdbaths. You can also recognize the family resemblance among these birds by their generally rather plump bodies, upright posture, and somewhat large black eyes which give them, in the words of naturalist Scott Wiedensaul, “the appearance (if not the reality) of intelligence and personality.” The thrush family has generally been held in high esteem in America, above all for their songs: from the ubiquitous bold confidence of the American robin, to the ethereal melancholy of the hermit thrush, the rising fluting of the Swainson’s thrush, and the mysterious quavers of the varied thrush. And while our last thrush, the western bluebird, is not a great singer, he seems to have nonetheless established an unshakeable position in the world’s affection, with a comparable number of disparagers to rainbows and kittens.

American Robin

Our most common thrush, found in neighborhoods and woods, widespread throughout the year. These largish birds with red-orange breasts and dark backs are a familiar sight hunting worms in lawns or scarfing berries in trees. Robins are almost as familiar to ears as to eyes, with their cheering song one of the central voices in spring’s great chorus. Read the full essay.

Varied Thrush

Photo by Eugene Beckes

A highly mysterious, robin-sized bird of northwestern forests, the varied thrush descends to our latitudes in winter, subtly infiltrating our densest, darkest woods and filling them with ineffable sensations of shadowy elusivity. You won’t see these birds parading down the neighborhood, but you can find them in forest preserves like Indian Tree, Indian Valley, and other more expansive collections of conifers elsewhere in the county. Read the full essay.

Hermit Thrush

Local photo by S. Hunt

Many have declared the robin to be the most cheering singer in American birdlife. The hermit thrush makes a strong claim to have the loveliest and most sweetly melancholic song, which you can hear in their breeding grounds in conifer forests such as found at Indian Tree Open Space Preserve. These small and subtle forest thrushes are cloaked in brown, spotted with camouflaging dots, and sedately decorated only with an earthy red tail. In winter, they become easier to find, with additional migrant birds spreading throughout both woodland and neighborhood habitats, free from the nesting season’s exacting requirements.

Swainson’s Thrush

Photo by Mick Thompson/Eastside Audubon

The Swainson’s thrush is a close relative to the hermit thrush: another small brown thrush who trades his cousin’s red tail for yet more brown. He also shares some of the hermit’s musical gifts, with a rising fluting song that has its own undeniable loveliness. Swainson’s thrushes are summer visitors only to the Bay Area and although fairly common in Marin County, are only rarely encountered in Novato’s immediate environs, with our relative scarcity of their ideal nesting habitat of forest with a dense, moist understory – either near a creek or in the regularly fog-bathed coastal side of the county. If you see them regularly in Novato, I’d like to know where!

Western Bluebird

Local Photo by Christine Hansen

These unmistakable birds of blue and red (females echo this color pattern in more muted form) are universally loved. They are colorful, they like to nest in the houses we give them, they eat a prodigious number of insects, and they demonstrate to jays how a bird can be both strikingly blue and at the same time quiet, demure, and mild-mannered. To us, that is – their insect prey doubtless feel differently. Bluebirds are found in open habitats, nesting in cavities in the scattered mature trees of our oak savannah community or in human-made nest boxes. Look for them at Mount Burdell, Olompali, Stafford Lake, Rush Creek, and wherever else the press of humanity and the press of the woods relax enough give them room to do what they do best: perch somewhere with sharp-eyed alertness, making periodic sallies as appetite and opportunity coincide.

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