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Varied Thrush

Ixoreus naevius ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: TURDIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The Varied Thrush’s simple, ringing song gives a voice to the quiet forests of the Pacific Northwest, with their towering conifers and wet understories of ferns, shrubs, and mosses. Catch a glimpse of this shy bird and you’ll see a handsome thrush with a slaty gray back and breast band set against burnt-orange breast and belly. Common in the Cascades, Northern Rockies, and Pacific Coast, Varied Thrushes forage for insects in summer and switch to berries and seeds in winter.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
7.5–10.2 in
19–26 cm
Wingspan
13.4–15 in
34–38 cm
Weight
2.3–3.5 oz
65–100 g
Relative Size
About the size of an American Robin; smaller than a Steller’s Jay.
Other Names
  • Grive à collier (French)
  • Zorzal pechicinchado, Mirlo pecho cinchado (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Louis Agassiz Fuertes, a twentieth-century bird artist and friend of Cornell Lab founder Arthur Allen, described the Varied Thrush’s simple, contemplative song “as perfectly the voice of the cool, dark peaceful solitude which the bird chooses for its home as could be imagined.”
  • Long-term data collected by participants of Project FeederWatch have shown that Varied Thrush populations go up and down on a 2-year cycle.
  • Varied Thrushes are often aggressive toward each other and other bird species. At feeders, males sometimes defend small feeding territories, where they dominate sparrows, blackbirds, cowbirds, towhees and juncos. They usually defer to California Quails, Northern Flickers, Western Scrub-Jays, and American Robins. The only time Varied Thrushes flock with other species is when they occasionally forage for berries or earthworms on lawns with American Robins.
  • The oldest Varied Thrush on record was 4 years, 9 months old.

Habitat


Forest

The Varied Thrush lives in dark, wet, mature forests in the Pacific Northwest. In its breeding range, which covers Alaska and tapers as it extends south to northern California, it inhabits forests dominated by coastal redwood, Sitka spruce, red alder forests, western hemlock, western red cedar, western larch, or Douglas-fir. In winter it may be found in a broader range of habitats, including parks, gardens, lakeshores, and riparian areas where fruit and berries are abundant.

Food


Insects

During breeding season, Varied Thrushes eat insects and other arthropods from the leaf litter; in winter they eat mostly berries and nuts. They forage by seizing dead leaves in their bill and hopping backward to clear a spot of ground before examining it for prey. In fall and winter, they switch to fruits and acorns, forming loose flocks around their food. Some of their typical fruits are snowberry, apple, honeysuckle, madrone, mistletoe, manzanita, toyon, ash, salal, cascara, dogwood, blueberry, huckleberry, salmonberry, and thimbleberry.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
1–6 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Egg Length
1.1–1.4 in
2.8–3.5 cm
Egg Width
0.7–0.9 in
1.9–2.3 cm
Incubation Period
12 days
Nestling Period
13–15 days
Egg Description
Light sky blue, sometimes with dark-brown speckles.
Condition at Hatching
Eyes closed and bodies mostly bare with sparse patches of gray down.
Nest Description

The female gathers nest material and weaves an outer layer of fir, hemlock, spruce, or alder twigs. She adds a middle layer with rotten wood, moss, mud, or decomposing grass, which hardens into a dense cup about 4 inches across and 2 inches deep. Finally, she lines the cup with fine grasses, soft dead leaves, and fine moss, and drapes pieces of green moss over the rim and outside of the nest.

Nest Placement

Tree

Females probably choose where to build the nest—usually in the understory of a mature forest, often in a spot surrounded by old nests (or even directly on top of one). They are usually around 10 feet off the ground and poorly concealed, close to the trunk of a small conifer.

Behavior


Ground Forager

Varied Thrushes forage on the ground, periodically moving to higher perches in the understory to sing or move between foraging sites. Males reach the breeding grounds before females and start singing to establish territories. They have several threat displays, beginning by cocking the tail, turning it toward an intruder, and lowering the wings. If the adversary remains, the displaying bird will face off, lowering its head, raising and fanning the tail, and spreading its wings out to its side. Occasionally, males peck at or lock bills with each other. While squabbling over territory or chasing away nest intruders, they may dive and swoop through dense vegetation, sometimes hitting branches along the way. Males may also defend small sites around bird feeders in the winter, though females seem to use alternative feeding sites to avoid competition. Varied Thrushes are thought to establish monogamous breeding pairs, but how long the birds stay together is not known.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Varied Thrushes are fairly common, but their populations declined by 2.2 percent between 1966 and 2010, resulting in a cumulative decline of 62 percent, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 20 million with 82 percent spending some part of the year in the U.S., 32 percent in Canada, and 3 percent wintering in Mexico. This U.S.-Canada Stewardship species rates an 11 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and is not on the 2012 Watch List. Because Varied Thrush live in mature and old-growth forests containing very large trees, logging and forest fragmentation can cause habitat loss that reduces their numbers. They don’t tend to live in forest patches smaller than about 40 acres. Around human habitation, Varied Thrushes have proven very vulnerable to window strikes as well as predation by domestic and feral cats and collisions with cars. Varied Thrushes may benefit from reserves that have been established to protect the Northern Spotted Owl.

Credits

Range Map Help

Varied Thrush Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Short-distance, partial migrant. Some coastal breeders stay in one place year-round, but inland breeders migrate south in winter. Northern breeding populations may “leapfrog” past southern breeding populations, wintering farther south. In many winters, a few Varied Thrushes move erratically and appear in the Midwest and Northeast, far out of their normal range.

Backyard Tips

In the winter Varied Thrushes will eat seed from ground feeders. Planting native fruiting shrubs is also a good way to attract them to your yard.

Find This Bird

In the dim, dense forests where Varied Thrushes breed, your first clue that a bird is around will probably be its sweet, echoing, simple song. Look for foraging Varied Thrushes on the ground in small openings, but look for singing birds at higher perches in the understory and lower layers of the forest. In winter, Varied Thrushes show up south of their breeding range and often come to feeders or yards.