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Townsend's Solitaire

Myadestes townsendi ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: TURDIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The Townsend’s Solitaire is an elegant, wide-eyed songbird of western-mountain forests. Their drab gray plumage gets a lift from subtly beautiful buffy wing patches and a white eyering. Though they're thrushes, they perch upright atop trees and shrubs to advertise their territories all year long, and can easily be mistaken for flycatchers. Their sweet jumbling song gives them away and enlivens their evergreen forest and juniper woodland homes. In winter they switch from eating primarily insects to eating fruit, particularly juniper berries.

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
7.9–8.7 in
20–22 cm
Weight
1.1–1.2 oz
30–35 g
Relative Size
Larger than a Mountain Bluebird, smaller than an American Robin.
Other Names
  • Solitaire de Townsend (French)
  • Clarín Norteño (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • If you ever thought that you liked berries, check out a Townsend's Solitaire's appetite. One study suggested they would need to eat between 42,000 and 84,000 juniper berries to survive the winter. Now that is a lot of berries.
  • During the winter, the male and female are both strongly territorial, defending patches of juniper trees against other solitaires and other birds. They feed largely or even exclusively on the juniper's ripe, fleshy berries for the entire nonbreeding season.
  • The Townsend's Solitaire sings throughout the fall and winter to set up and hold its winter territory. Violent fights may break out in defense of the winter territory, because owners of large, berry-rich territories survive the winter at higher rates than solitaires on small territories with few berries.
  • The Townsend’s Solitaire is in the thrush family, which includes species such as Western Bluebird and American Robin. Unlike most thrushes, Townsend’s Solitaires fly out and back from a perch to capture food, similar to how flycatchers behave.
  • The Townsend’s Solitaire is the only solitaire species in the continental United States, but 7 other species of solitaire (genus Myadestes) occur throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and 5 species are native to Hawaii, although 2 of them are extinct.
  • The Townsend's Solitaire usually puts its nest on the ground, but may nest above the ground in a decaying stub or a live tree. It is especially fond of nesting along cut banks. All of the sites used are nooks or hollows beneath some sort of overhanging object that shelters the nest from above.
  • John Kirk Townsend collected the first Townsend’s Solitaire in 1835 along the lower Willamette River in Oregon. Three years later, John James Audubon honored Townsend by naming the bird after him.
  • The oldest recorded Townsend's Solitaire was at least 5 years old when it was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in California.

Habitat


Open Woodland

Townsend’s Solitaires inhabit pine, fir, and spruce forests with sparse shrub layers in mountainous regions from about 1,100 to 11,500 feet. They are less common in mixed evergreen and deciduous forests and in quaking aspen stands. During the nonbreeding season some Townsend’s Solitaires migrate short distances to lower elevations (sea level to 6,500 feet) especially where juniper berries are abundant. Prime wintering habitat includes one-seed, western, or Rocky Mountain juniper trees with a few scattered tall pines for perching. In winter, they also use desert washes, open hillsides, and shrublands if fruits are available.

Food


Insects

The Townsend’s Solitaire eats insects, butterflies, moths, and spiders during the breeding season but switches to eating fruit, especially juniper berries, during the nonbreeding season. They primarily eat juniper berries but also eat winterberry, holly, buckthorn, currant, serviceberry, hackberry, elderberry, and other fruits. They capture insects by flying out from perches and snapping them in midair or by pouncing on prey in trees or on the ground. They also flutter to pick berries from trees or grab them from the ground.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
3–5 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Egg Length
0.9–0.9 in
2.2–2.4 cm
Egg Width
0.7–0.7 in
1.7–1.8 cm
Incubation Period
11–13 days
Nestling Period
10–14 days
Egg Description
Variable in color from dull white to pale pink to greenish blue, with dark blotches and spots scattered throughout.
Condition at Hatching
Hatchlings are naked with sparse gray down and closed eyes.
Nest Description

Female Townsend’s Solitaires build cup nests with pine needles, lined with grasses or strips of bark. If she builds a nest on level ground, she builds the cup nest in a small depression. If she builds a nest on a slope, she first lays down a foundation of twigs. She can build a nest in as little as 2 days or she can take up to 14 days to complete it. Nest size depends on whether the nest is on level ground, but averages 8 inches by 3 inches on the outside with a smaller cup that is 3 inches by 2 inches.

Nest Placement

Ground

Pairs investigate possible nest sites together until the female picks a spot. She builds the nest on the ground in dirt banks along road cuts, riverbanks, or naturally eroded slopes in open evergreen forests. Along these banks, she chooses a nook or hollow such that the nest is partially protected from above.

Behavior


Flycatching

The elegant Townsend’s Solitaire perches upright and sings from prominent perches at all times of the year. When they leave their perch they fly with slow leisurely wingbeats. To attract a mate, males sing from the treetops and fly 300 feet or more above the ground and then slowly circle downward while singing. Once paired, males feed females to preserve the pair bond; a common behavior known as mate feeding. They begin breeding early in the spring which allows them to renest many times in case their early nests fail. Their habit of nesting in banks makes them susceptible to ground-dwelling nest predators such as Douglas squirrel, golden-mantled ground squirrel, skunks, and other rodents. In the nonbreeding season, they defend territories around berry-producing shrubs such as junipers that help them get through the winter. They defend these food-rich territories aggressively by chasing, threatening, and fighting other birds that enter. Solitaires chase Mountain Bluebirds, Cedar Waxwings, Western Bluebirds, Cassin’s Finches, and Evening Grosbeaks from their winter territories, but they often lose to American Robins, which displace the solitaires temporarily.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

The Townsend’s Solitaire is common in much of the West and populations remained stable between 1968 and 2015, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 1 million individuals, with 80% spending some part of the year in the U.S., 39% in Canada, and 13% in Mexico. The species rates a 10 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and is not on the 2016 State of North America's Birds Watch List. The Townsend’s Solitaire may benefit from forest thinning activities in breeding areas, but increases in populations in thinned forests may not continue as forest patches age.

Credits

Range Map Help

Townsend
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Short-distance migrant or resident. Some populations migrate to lower elevations for the winter; others move south into the United States or Mexico.

Backyard Tips

If you live in an area of the West where juniper trees grow, try adding a couple to your yard to entice a Townsend Solitaire to visit during the winter. Learn more about how to create bird-friendly backyards at Habitat Network.

Find This Bird

Townsend’s Solitaires are fairly inconspicuous birds that often sit motionless, but their sweet jumbling song and tendency to sing throughout the year, is often the best way to track them down. During the breeding season you might also stumble across a nesting pair by walking along an old Forest Service road with steeply cut banks. Be on the lookout for a gray bird that quickly darts out of the bank as you walk by (and if you do flush a bird, don't stick around too long and allow the bird to return to its nest). Perhaps the easiest time to see them is during winter, when these birds are common around junipers loaded with berries. Once you find a patch listen for their persistent ringing call and start scanning the tree tops.

Get Involved

Join the Great Backyard Bird Count and tell us how many species you see in your yard. Find out more at Great Backyard Bird Count.

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