For the Birds Radio Program: Varied Thrush
Last week I got a call from a listener named Brent Vigness in Cromwell, MN, who has a Varied Thrush on his property. I asked if he had any spruce trees around, and sure enough, he did–that seems to be the common thread in all the Varied Thrushes I’ve seen in Minnesota and Wisconsin. These birds are native to the far western US and Canada, on the Pacific slope where dense stands of conifers are the standard, and I think spruce trees make them feel at home when they are so far out of their range. This summer I heard lots of them when I was in Alaska’s Inside Passage. Their haunting, ethereal song was one of the highlights of the entire trip for me. This time of year they’re simply not singing, and birds that appear out of range are pretty much silent, but to have such a rare and lovely bird in a yard is a feast for the eyes if not the ears.
Varied Thrushes are one of the magical denizens of the Pacific rainforest. In keeping with the lushness of their habitat their colors are richer and darker than robins, and take on a soft glow when sunlight penetrates their misty habitat. They may be the most beautiful of the thrushes—they certainly are the most brilliantly colored, their red brighter than the reddest robins, their facial and wing markings striking. Although their shape, size, and basic colors are very robin-like, virtually no one would mistake the two species because the Varied Thrush is so very striking in pattern.
This winter is shaping up to be a good one in terms of rarities. There’s been an Anna’s Hummingbird hanging out in the Twin Cities , Snowy Owls turning up everywhere, and I’ve heard of a couple of other reports of Varied Thrushes here and there. Keeping feeders filled is no guarantee that you’ll get rare birds, but letting them go empty is a pretty effective guarantee that you won’t.
When a Varied Thrush turns up in the northland during winter, it occasionally takes sunflower seeds or plops of suet that have fallen on the ground, but is more often found eating berries or crab apples, or simply feeding on hidden bugs the ground. Once in a while a Varied Thrush appears in a robin flock, but they’re more often rather solitary. I don’t know why these western birds wander so far from their home range. Every year a handful appear somewhere in Minnesota and Wisconsin , but there doesn’ t seem to be a pattern in where they show up– it’ s one of the delightful mysteries of ornithology, predictable in its unpredictability. I had one in my yard, long enough that a couple of friends got to my house in time to see it be chased off by a shrike, never to be seen in these parts again. But that short time that he was here was like a lovely little grace note in a piano piece, adding a glow of richness to the total work. And ever since, the trees in my backyard have had a special glow, and I keep my eyes open for that slight movement that might reveal another visiting Varied Thrush. Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul. And sometimes in a spruce tree.