Bird Lore: Hermit Thrush

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Hermit Thrush (Photos by Blair Bernson)

There are six spot-breasted thrushes that summer in the United States. The Hermit Thrush is the only one that also winters here. It can be found throughout the year in Washington’s mountains: the Olympics, the Cascades, the Selkirks in the northeast, and the Blues in the southeast. Some birds migrate in late fall to the Puget Lowlands and coastal Washington. This species leaves in spring for its breeding grounds about the time the Swainson’s Thrush arrives.

Insects and berries make up most of the Hermit Thrush’s diet. Insects include ants, beetles, caterpillars, grasshoppers, true bugs, earthworms, spiders, and occasionally small salamanders. It forages on the ground for insects, plucking them from leaf litter and soil. It will also forage by a technique called foot quivering. It shakes bits of grass with its feet to get at insects. Berries are particularly important to its winter diet. They include elderberries, serviceberries, pokeberries, grapes, mistletoe berries and, locally, evergreen huckleberries. When targeting berries, this thrush can be found feeding in shrubs and trees.

The Hermit Thrush is a rare visitor to suburban yards. Typically, it will not visit bird feeders. The best time to find it in a yard is during fall migration when it might be seen foraging on the ground or eating berries. Because it is a late fall migrant, its arrival in Western Washington coincides with the ripening of berries such as our native evergreen huckleberry. It is particularly attracted to these dense bushes with their small black berries. Although it is an uncommon visitor, it can be found in the forested parks of Edmonds where berries remain in winter. If you see a compact, spot-breasted thrush between November and March, you are seeing the Hermit Thrush. Note its ruddy tail that contrasts with its brown back and wings.

In breeding season, the male defends his territory by singing in the morning and evening. The nest site varies with the region. Here the nest is usually in a conifer tree, 3-12 feet above ground. The female builds the nest, which is a bulky open cup of moss, twigs, weeds, bark strips, or ferns. It is lined with soft materials such as plant fibers, pine needles, and small roots. The female alone incubates her four eggs for about 12 days. Both parents feed the nestlings. The young can fly at about 12 days of age. There are usually one or two broods each year.

The oldest Hermit Thrush of record was at least 10 years and 10 months of age when it was recaptured in 2009 during banding operations in Maryland.

The Hermit Thrush population remained relatively stable between 1966 and 2015. The global population is estimated at 40 million, with 66 percent spending part of the year in the U.S., 75 percent in Canada, and 33 percent wintering in Mexico. Its conservation status is considered to be of least concern. Like most other songbirds, it migrates at night so the species is vulnerable to collisions with transmission towers and skyscrapers. Forest fires will cause this species to move elsewhere for several years while the forest regenerates.

The Hermit Thrush’s song can be heard here: http://www.xeno-canto.org/326278. Three distinct calls can be heard here: http://www.xeno-canto.org/323240.

— By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

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