For the Birds Radio Program: Varied Thrush

Original Air Date: Feb. 5, 1988

Artis Orjala wrote to Laura about a beautiful and rare bird in Aitkin.

Duration: 3′31″


Varied Thrushes

(Recording of a Varied Thrush)

Last week I received a letter from one of my KAXE listeners, Artis Orjala, who wrote to tell me about a beautiful and rare bird wintering at their Aitkin feeding station–a Varied Thrush.

This relative of the robin is normally found in the far western United States and Canada–two of its nicknames are the Oregon Robin and the Alaska Robin–but occasional stragglers make their way to Minnesota and Wisconsin in winter. The first Minnesota record of this species was in February, 1941, when one was found in Lake County along the North Shore of Lake Superior. Until the 1960’s, records were so sporadic that it was considered an accidental. In the last two decades it has become a regular winter visitant, although sightings are still few and far between. The lucky people who get them usually have some nearby dense stands of conifers, but occasionally one turns up right in a city, like the one that spent last winter not far from downtown Duluth. Yards with several feeders not only attract more birds, they attract a better variety as well. The Orjalas go through 50 pounds of sunflower seeds every week, plus quite a bit of corn and suet. And they also give their Varied Thrush apples and raisins–no wonder it’s been hanging around there since December 13.

As Artis notes, Varied Thrushes are beautiful birds. Not only are they orange-breasted like robins–they also have orange wing-bars and an orange eye-line. The distinctive black breast-band on males is striking. Upperparts of males are bluish-gray; on females they’re rich brown.

In their western home, Varied Thrushes feed mostly on the ground like robins. When the ground is thawed they eat beetles, ants, caterpillars, grasshoppers, crickets, spiders, snails, sow bugs, and earthworms, along with some bees, wasps, and flies. Wintering birds are often found near springs, where the warm water keeps the ground open and some of these cold- blooded creatures around all winter. Also, like robins, Varied Thrushes are fond of many kinds of berries. In 1940, one in Berkeley, California, foolishly tried to eat an acorn. Its beak became impaled in the acorn, and the bird, unable to eat, weakened almost died. Fortunately, someone came along, removed the acorn, and released the bird.

Varied thrushes that wander to our area in winter are usually solitary birds, more likely to be found with a group of hardy robins than with other Varied Thrushes. One observer wrote to Arthur Cleveland Bent that it “is a very quarrelsome bird, continually driving its own and other species from a feeding station. One bird will adopt a regular dog-in-the- manger attitude, stopping any other bird from taking food, though not feeding itself. Its place may be taken by another, who on driving it off will take up the same position. Males are worse than females.”

Varied Thrushes are pretty much silent in winter. Once spring carries them back to their breeding grounds in the far west, their haunting, melancholy song will again be heard in the somber Pacific rain forest.

(Recording of a Varied Thrush).

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”