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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.

Birds of North America Online
Year End Match

Keys to identification Help

Thrushes
Thrushes
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Swainson’s Thrushes are medium-sized thrushes—slim songbirds with round heads and short, straight bills. Their fairly long wings and medium-length tail can make the back half of the bird appear long.

  • Color Pattern

    These medium-brown birds with pale underparts have spotted chests and large buffy eyerings that extend in front of the eye, creating “spectacles.” The whitish throat is bordered on each side with a dark brown stripe. Swainson’s Thrushes breeding on the Pacific slope of the U.S. and Canada have warmer brown upperparts (see Regional Differences).

  • Behavior

    Swainson’s Thrushes are shy but vocal birds that skulk in the shadows of their generally dark forest-interior habitat. They forage for insects and other arthropods on or near the ground. On migration, particularly in fall, they also eat small fruits such as wild cherries and Virginia creeper.

  • Habitat

    This is a forest bird, rarely found far from closed-canopy forest. Breeding habitat is a mix of deciduous and coniferous forest (though sometimes includes pure deciduous forest). In the Rocky Mountains and in Pacific states, look for them in dense alder thickets along streams running through coniferous forest.

Range Map Help

Swainson
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Field MarksHelp

  • Adult

    Swainson's Thrush

    Adult
    • Slender, dull olive/gray thrush
    • Buffy "spectacles" with buffy wash on face and upper breast
    • © Tom Smith, Garret Mountain, New Jersey, May 2010
  •  

    Swainson's Thrush

     
    • Slender-bodied thrush with long wings
    • Buffy "spectacles"
    • Spotting bolder on upper breast, fades near belly
    • © Cleber Ferreira, Winter Park, Florida, October 2009
  •  

    Swainson's Thrush

     
    • Slender-bodied thrush
    • Dull, olive-brown upperparts
    • Buffy "spectacles" on face
    • © Matt Bango, Central Park, New York, New York, May 2009
  •  

    Swainson's Thrush

     
    • Dull olive-brown above
    • Distinctive buffy "spectacles" and buffy wash on face and upper breast
    • Spotting most obvious on chest, fades lower on belly
    • © Laura Meyers, Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York, May 2013

Similar Species

  •  

    Hermit Thrush

     
    • Stockier than Swainson's Thrush, with shorter wings
    • Rusty-red tail contrasts with duller back and wings
    • No "spectacles" or buffy wash on face
    • © Bob Gunderson, Winters, California, December 2011
  •  

    Gray-cheeked Thrush

     
    • Duller/grayer overall than Swainson's Thrush
    • Cold gray face with no obvious "spectacles" or buffy coloration
    • © Danny Bales, Florida, April 2009
  •  

    Veery

     
    • Rustier and more colorful than Swainson's Thrush
    • Faint rusty spotting on upper-breast
    • No obvious "spectacles"
    • © Bill Benish, Central Park, New York, September 2010
  • Adult

    Wood Thrush

    Adult
    • Larger and stockier than Swainson's Thrush
    • Pot-bellied
    • Bright rufous/brick-red on head and back
    • Bold spotting all the way down to belly
    • © Greg Page, Galveston, Texas, April 2010

Similar Species

Separating the brown thrushes in the genus Catharus can be very tricky, but Swainson’s Thrushes are distinctive in their wide and very noticeable buffy spectacles as well as buffy aspects to the face and upper chest. Hermit Thrush has whitish eyerings, generally not obviously connected into spectacles. Their primaries are strongly rufous and the tail is even rustier, usually contrasting strongly with the browner back. Hermit Thrush also has a distinctive, commonly seen habit of quickly lifting, then slowly lowering the tail. Veeries are warmer brown than most Swainson’s Thrushes and have much fainter eyerings; less-obvious chest spotting; and less distinct, lighter brown stripes on the side of the throat. Gray-cheeked Thrush and Bicknell’s Thrush have grayer faces and, often, crowns and their eyerings are much thinner, grayish or off-white, and not so obviously connected into spectacles. Their lateral throat stripes and chest spotting tend to be blackish, rather than dark brown. They also tend to show rufous highlights to their tails and primaries (the outer half of the wing), particularly Bicknell’s Thrush, that Swainson’s generally lack. Wood Thrush is a larger, plumper bird, with round black spots on white underparts and obvious white eyerings. Juvenile American Robins are substantially larger, heftier birds, with large blackish spots and at least some suggestions of an adult’s reddish breast. They also have pale spots on the gray upperparts, instead of Swainson’s Thrush’s brown back and wings.

Regional Differences

Swainson’s Thrushes that breed in the Pacific states (often called the “Russet-backed” Thrush) are rusty-brown above, with thinner, paler eyerings and medium-brown chest spotting. The widespread eastern and northern form (often called “Olive-backed Thrush”) is common east of the Cascades/Sierra Nevada.

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.