Swainson’s Thrush

Hey guys welcome back! When it comes to brown birds, sparrows usually get the bad rap of being confusing and difficult to ID. And while this is true, thrushes give them a run for their money. Now, there are much fewer thrush species in North America to contend with, but there are a handful in particular that can be quite difficult to distinguish. Take today’s bird for example. The Swainson’s thrush is yet another brown thrush with a light and spotted breast. Very similar to the hermit, gray-cheeked, and Bicknell’s thrushes, the Swainson’s thrush may look at first like a bird that you’ll never be able to ID. But there are a couple of things to look for that should help.

Swainson’s thrush, Gateway Arch National Park, St. Louis, MO

First off, is song. When it comes to these thrushes, song is the best way to tell them apart. All thrushes in North America have very beautiful songs, and they’re all also different from one another. However, some of these thrushes don’t sing until they’re on their breeding grounds, so that kind of rules out song as a way to ID them. So how do you tell the Swainson’s from the other thrushes? First thing I always do is try to get a look at the back. If the tail is noticeably a redder brown than the body, then you know you got a hermit. If not, then you want to try and get a good look at the face. A Swainson’s thrush will have a buff colored eye-ring and lores, making him look like he’s wearing buff-colored spectacles. Additionally, there is a buff colored wash on the cheeks. The gray-cheeked and Bicknell’s will have a whiter (and less distinct) eye-ring, and grayer wash on the cheeks.

Swainsons Thrush3
Swainson’s thrush peeking out from a bush, Central Park, NY

To add one more bit of confusion, these birds like the dense understory of forests. This habitat is typically less well lit, and lighting can make telling the color of the cheeks of a bird running around on the ground even more difficult. In other words, good luck haha! Swainson’s thrushes are more widespread than the others, so there’s that. Once you sort of get used to what’s common in your area, and after you’ve seen a number of them, you get to the point where 8 times out of 10 you’ll be able to just “know” what you’re seeing! Like other thrushes, Swainson’s thrushes forage for bugs and worms and grubs on the forest floor. Swainson’s breed primarily in Canada, but also in the upper elevations of the Rocky Mountains where a redder variety (known as a russet-backed) lives. Though the two color variations breed and winter in different areas, there seems to be no rumblings that they’re different species. Good, because that would just add to the ID difficulty! Join me next time as we head back to the warblers! Magnolia warbler up next! See you then!

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