Varied thrush visits the lowlands in winter

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Photo by DON BARTLING Varied Thrush is quite secretive by nature, but this first year female thrush felt secure by our feeder and comfortable with our tree cover.

One of the most beautiful birds in Boundary County is the varied thrush.

Last weekend I had the opportunity to observe a bird I had not recognized before. I caught a glimpse of a shy bird, a very handsome bird with a slate gray back and breast band set against a burnt yellow/orange breast.

At first look I thought it was a robin, but soon dismissed that idea because of the season and its color variations. It had a similar size and shape as the robin, but had a warm orange breast with a black breast band, compared with the brick red breast of the robin. After consulting my “Birds of Idaho” field guide I found that this bird was a varied thrush and is common to North Idaho, the Northern Rockies and the Pacific Northwest. This particular bird was a first year female.

The varied thrush is an intriguing-looking bird. The male is a potbellied, robin-like bird with orange eyebrows, chin, breast, and wing bars. Head, neck, and back are gray to blue, with a black breast band and eye mark. The female is a browner version of the male; the breast band is gray with underparts less rusty. The juvenile is similar to the female.

The thrush’s cup-shaped nest is built by the female, who has one to two broods per year. The female lays three to five pale blue eggs with brown markings. The incubation period is 12-14 days with the female totally responsible for the incubation. The male and the female are both responsible for feeding the young. Some varied thrush stay in Northern Idaho year-round.

The varied thrush on its breeding grounds is a rather shy and retiring bird, perhaps more retiring than shy, as it fades away into its dense and shady retreats on the approach of an intruder. In spite of the striking color patterns these birds are often quite inconspicuous where their colors seem to match their surroundings and help them to fade into the picture.

This is especially true of the females; the pale buff shades of the breast are exactly the tint of many of the mosses on the rocks and logs, or the ends of broken branches on fallen trees; and the pale grayish olive of the back is the color of logs or rocks. If motionless among such surroundings, the bird might be overlooked. The male’s colors make him more conspicuous, and consequently more shy, but when his back is turned his colors match his surroundings; and even the conspicuous black bank on his breast may tend to break up the continuity of his form.

Varied thrushes hop on the ground or low in shrubs and trees. They eat mainly insects and other arthropods in the summer and switch to nuts and fruit in fall and winter.

In breeding territories, male varied thrushes sit on exposed perches to sing their haunting, trilling songs. The varied thrush’s simple, ringing song gives a voice to the quiet forests of North Idaho, with their towering conifers and wet understories of ferns, shrubs, and mosses.

Winter is seriously upon us and more snow on its way. Let’s hope it encourages the varied thrush to visit more often.

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