For the Birds Radio Program: Varied Thrush

Original Air Date: Dec. 13, 1993

When Laura heard from a listener with a Varied Thrush at his feeder, it reminded Laura of the one in her yard last year. (recast from 10/26/92) (date confirmed) 4:11

Audio missing


Last week, I heard from a gentleman outside of Duluth who had a Varied Thrush at his feeder. He reminded me of the day last fall when I spent a couple of hours watching goshawks and red-tails cruising over Hawk Ridge, and then came home to study organic chemistry. My brain was locked in that netherworld between hawk identification and memorizing alkene and alkyne reactions as I got out of the car, and I wasn’t jolted into the real world when I inadvertently flushed a funny-looking robin from under my feeder. It had bright markings on the wings, and for a moment I vaguely thought it might be a Townsend’s Solitaire, except that Townsend’s Solitaires don’t have bright orange underparts or facial markings. I thought of the dozens of organic chemistry problems I still had to do that day, and shrugged the bird question off.

A while later, two White-breasted Nuthatches showed up at the dining room window feeder. I’m constitutionally incapable of studying organic chemistry when I can make any excuse not to, so I called in my little first-grader Tommy and showed him how to tell boy and girl nuthatches apart by looking at their caps—the males have glossy black caps while the females have grayish-black caps contrasting with darker napes. But in mid-sentence, I suddenly realized that right beyond the nuthatches, sitting on the ground right there on my lawn, was that odd robin—a gorgeous adult male Varied Thrush. I started yelling for my husband and all my kids and all the neighborhood kids that play at my house to come quick and see this rare bird.

My kids are pretty blase’ about rare birds. They’ve all seen Boreal Owls and Piping Plovers and even a Fork-tailed Flycatcher, and it’s hard to put down a Lego pirate ship just to see another one of mom’s birds. But what my kids lack in ornithological interest they more than make up for in politeness, so they dutifully gathered at the dining room window for a quick look. And they liked what they saw. Joey even paid the bird the ultimate compliment, “Awesome!”

Any Varied Thrush is a darned pretty bird, and this was the deluxe, adult male version. The red throat and breast are brighter and more glowing than the brick red of a robin’s breast. There’s a pretty reddish eyebrow accentuated by a slate gray cheek patch, and pretty red wing bars and wing markings. The gray back and crown have a slate blue cast to them which seems prettier and more dramatic than the robin’s duller blackish gray. Varied Thrushes have a slightly smaller tail, and so are a bit shorter than robins, but are pretty close in size and general shape.

Varied Thrushes are also known as Oregon robins or Alaska robins, which explains why I was so excited about this little bird showing up in my yard. These birds are found along the Pacific Slope, but every year individuals show up throughout the rest of the continent. The first one noticed and recorded in Minnesota was found at a feeder in Lake County along the Lake Superior shoreline in February, 1941; now birdwatchers manage to find at least one or two somewhere in the state every winter. And from 3 to 12 turn up in Wisconsin every year. To reach the northland, these feisty 2 1/2-ounce individuals must fly 1200 miles off course. And some of them make it all the way over to the Atlantic Coast every year. Even though they’re regular in the Midwest, these shy wanderers are always exciting to see, and, if my children are any judges, are worth breaking up even the funnest Lego game to see.