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Swainson's Thrush

Catharus ustulatus ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: TURDIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

More likely to be heard than seen, Swainson’s Thrushes enliven summer mornings and evenings with their upward-spiraling, flutelike songs. During fall and spring migration, their soft, bell-like overhead “peeps” may be mistaken for the calls of frogs. These largely arboreal foragers pluck berries, glean bugs from leaves, or perch on branches and stumps. They also bound across the forest floor to catch insect prey. They breed in the north and the mountainous West, but they become very widespread during migration.

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Songs

The Swainson’s Thrush is best known for its distinctive, fluting song, the upward-spiraling melody that breeding males use to defend nests and territory and also probably to attract mates. While this song varies somewhat from one individual bird to the next, its whistling, constantly ascending quality is always recognizable once you’ve heard it.

Calls

Both sexes emit about a half dozen different one-or-two-note calls, none of which has the flutelike quality of the advertising song. Migrating birds utter a hollow peep or note that resembles the call of a spring peeper frog. Intruders or predators in the vicinity of a nest may hear a whit—a sharp, single note expressing alarm or the intention to distract. The bird may repeat this note to try to lure a human intruder away from a nest, and it may respond to a human imitation of the sound. Swainson’s Thrushes also have a thin, high-pitched, single-note whine similar to that of American Robin. They also make a bink like water dropping onto a hard surface, and a single, drawn-out, metallic peeer reminiscent of the song of the Varied Thrush, but not as long.

Search the Macaulay Library online archive for more sounds and videos

Backyard Tips

If you live within the Swainson’s Thrush’s range, you can make your yard more enticing to this bird by providing tree and shrub cover and ground-level bird baths, avoiding chemical pesticides, and letting leaf litter accumulate undisturbed.

Find This Bird

During summer, look—and especially listen—for the Swainson’s Thrush and its distinctive, spiraling song in closed forests of northern North America and the West. Swainson’s Thrushes become numerous across most of forested North America during migration in spring and fall. Though these birds can be hard to spot on the ground in a dim forest understory, they sing frequently in summer and call frequently during migration. In the breeding season, listen for the species’ beautiful, flutelike song coming from rich forest. (Just remember that Hermit Thrushes have a similar song, though it usually includes a clear, level introductory note.) Swainson’s Thrush also gives its distinctive water-drip call quite frequently. Once you get eyes on a candidate, check the face for that distinctive buffy-spectacled look. On winter grounds in Central and northern South America, the species inhabits closed-canopy forest and can often be found attending army-ant swarms.