Meet the thrushes: Their singing is impressive

The sight of four fledgling American robins on the lawn reminded me that robins are thrushes, a family of birds that has a handful of representatives likely to be seen in spring.

Most familiar members

Most have spotted breasts and most sing impressively. Robins and bluebirds, both plain breasted as adults, are probably the most familiar members of the thrush family.

But juveniles of both species have spotted breasts. So the sight of a young robin or bluebird is evidence of their kinship to thrushes.

The successful nest that produced the young robins in the yard was perched on top of a wren nest box inside an old shed.

It’s a great nest site, completely protected from the weather, but for three weeks the parents attacked my wife and me every time we walked by. Now that the young have fledged, the attacks have stopped.

However, robins often reuse nests, so the aggression may resume in a week or two.

Eastern bluebirds

Eastern bluebirds are another familiar thrush that lacks a spotted breast as an adult. And unlike the other thrushes, its voice is an unimpressive soft warble.

In a matter of days, some young bluebirds will also inhabit the yard, and their spotted breasts will be obvious.

The bluebirds ignored the nest boxes that ring the yard this spring and instead chose a cavity in a dead apple tree just 15 feet from the back porch.

Last year a downy woodpecker excavated the cavity on the underside of an arching branch about eight feet above the ground.

The adult blues have been feeding nestlings for more than two weeks, so the young should fledge in a few days.

Harbinger of spring

The other thrush that nests near the house is my true harbinger of spring. When we hear wood thrushes sing their flute-like “ee-o-lay,” my wife puts away the flannel sheets.

This year, that day was April 24, the same day I found some trilliums in bloom and the first rose-breasted grosbeak visited the feeders.

Wood thrushes are dominant birds in the deciduous forest. They sing loudly and persistently, especially early and late in the day.

I call their evening chorus “vespers.” As darkness envelopes the forest, the wood thrush song lends a cathedral-like quality to the woods.

Other species

When I hear a wood thrush on territory, I look for other species with whom it often associates. High in the tree tops, red-eyed vireos and American redstarts forage for fleshy caterpillars.

In the understory, where wood thrushes spend most of their time, I look for ovenbirds, hooded warblers and Kentucky warblers.

Though smaller than a robin, a wood thrush has a similar silhouette and can often be recognized at a glance.

Its rusty head is distinctive and its white breast marked by many bold dark spots confirms its identity.

Like a robin nest, a wood thrush nest is molded into a foundation of mud. Old leaves worked into the mud are covered with a lining of fine rootlets.

Most wood thrush nests are less than 10 feet above the ground and placed on a fork or horizontal tree limb. The three or four eggs are usually just a bit darker than robin eggs.

Three other thrushes

Three other thrushes might be encountered in coniferous or mixed woods. The hermit thrush resembles a wood thrush, but its head is dull, while its tail is bright rufous. And its breast spots are less distinct than a wood thrush’s.

Swainson’s thrush is duller still, has a buffy eye ring and has even less distinct breast spots. It compensates for its ordinary appearance with a beautiful voice.

See and hear online

To see and hear the thrushes, go to www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/search and search “thrushes.”

The veery is the least distinctly spotted thrush, lacks an eye ring and is rusty above from head to tail.

But its voice is unmistakable. Its liquid, flute-like notes seem to spiral downward as if cascading to the ground from the bird’s perch.

Its call note is a loud, distinct, “Veer!” I’ve never seen a veery here on the ridge, but they can be common in dense woods especially at higher elevations and along streams.

About the Author

Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. Send questions and comments to scottshalaway@gmail.com. You can also visit his Web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com. More Stories by Scott Shalaway

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