For the Birds Radio Program: Swainson's Thrush

Original Air Date: Oct. 11, 1995

Laura Erickson tells about the intimate friendship she developed with a Swainson’s Thrush. 3:53

Audio missing


A few weeks ago, someone brought me a Swainson’s Thrush that a cat had attacked. Don’t let me get started on cats–they take a tragic toll of fall migrants, and in the case of house cats, they don’t even do it for nourishment–just for fun. Young birds setting off on their first major journey in life are cut short before they even get close to needing their passports or listening to Spanish. If you have a cat, please keep it indoors during the fall migration season–oh, yes, and during the summer breeding season, too, and the spring migration season, and the winter, too. If you feel sad that the cat can’t have any fun, remember that it’s at least alive. Let it out and some birds won’t be.

Anyway, this young thrush was missing quite a few feathers, but I couldn’t find any sign of puncture wounds or other injuries, so I had hopes that it would actually survive–a rare event for cat-injured birds. It was pretty much in shock for the first couple of days, so I kept it in a darkened box. I’d have preferred keeping it where I could see it’s soft brown back, white breast with delicate spots, and soft cheek with the buffy eye-ring. Swainson’s Thrushes move about like robins, but their more delicate size and colors make them especially lovely and pleasing.

In the wild, Swainson’s Thrushes eat a huge variety of insects and fruits. This one was partial to thawed frozen blueberries and mealworms. She ate and ate and ate the first few days, and started getting strong again. Suddenly the cardboard box was way too boring, so she figured out how to jump out of it. Now every time I went into my writing room, I had to search her out so I wouldn’t step on her. She figured out the lay of the land amazingly well, considering that she had probably never before seen a computer keyboard, much less used one as a perch. Whenever she wanted to eat, she flew into her box, and flew over immediately when I added new mealworms to her dish, but now she spent most of her time hopping, robin-like, through the room or perched on my books or the peacock feathers on my desk or wherever else she happened to be. It didn’t take long for her to discover my mealworm bucket, and she quickly gobbled them up. She sat so still when she wasn’t on the move that sometimes I would look right at her without even noticing. Sometimes she sat on the back of my chair watching me. I often wondered what she was thinking.

New feathers grow in amazingly fast, and she kept getting stronger. Within a couple of weeks her wing feathers were just about complete, and her tail was on its way to being full again. She was getting into many places I’d just as soon not have a bird in, especially one that’s been eating blueberries, but she was such rare and lovely company that I didn’t mind the mess she made.

Finally, on September 26, a morning when I counted 9,774 warblers at the Lakewood Pumping Station and saw lots of thrushes on the ground, I knew it was time to set her free. Her feathers were good now, and she had a long journey ahead. These thrushes winter somewhere from southern Mexico to Argentina, and I wanted to give her a good start.

Thrushes consider kissing the height of rudeness, but I bid her farewell on my front porch. She sat on my hand, blinking in the bright sunlight, for several minutes, and I started thinking she didn’t really want to leave, but suddenly, just like that, she flew off without even a backward glance. And that’s the way it should be.