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.
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.
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.