ID Workshop: Use 4 Basic Keys Plus Migration Timing to Sort Out Your Thrushes

April 23, 2014
Hermit Thrush Hermit Thrush by Corey Hayes via BirdShare.

In spring and fall, all sorts of birds come flooding through North America on their way to breeding or wintering grounds. This is the time to see species that don’t normally live around you—and some of them may leave you scratching your head. Take this bird, for instance: lots of brown songbirds perch on branches, but which one is it? Let’s tick through the steps: First, use four key visual clues to get an idea of the group it belongs to; then tap into your knowledge of migration timing for some crucial clues; and then check out plumage details to narrow down an ID.

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1. What do we see? The first step is to quickly review the four keys to bird identification:

  • Shape: rounded head, plump body, longish legs, and fairly short tail
  • Color pattern: dark spots on the breast, brown upperparts
  • Behavior: perched on a branch, tail cocked
  • Habitat: though you can’t tell for sure in this picture, let’s say you saw this bird in a Massachusetts forest in April

2. Which group does this bird belong in? When we’re looking at a perching brown songbird, we start with sparrows, thrushes, and finches. The breast pattern is spotted, not streaked, and the bill is thin, which allow us to cut out sparrows and finches (which have stout, short bills and don’t usually have round spots on the breast). The shape is similar to an American Robin. Now we can confidently hone in on thrushes.

Wood Thrush by Mike via Birdshare.

Looking closely at the photo above, we see these spots become smudgy on the sides and belly. This eliminates Wood Thrush (right) which is larger and has well-defined spots all the way down the belly. We’re left with five species in the genus Catharus: Hermit, Swainson’s, Veery, plus the less commonly seen Gray-cheeked and Bicknell’s. These thrushes can be tricky—but we can get some help from migration timing before we dive into plumage details.

3. When are the birds near you? Timing, especially in winter and spring, can be immensely helpful in identifying Catharus thrushes. From November to March it’s easy—Hermit Thrush is the only one of the five species present in the U.S. and Canada. Swainson’s, Veery, and Gray-cheeked thrushes are in South America for the winter (Bicknell’s is in the Caribbean). Come spring, Hermit Thrush is the earliest migrant of this group. Check out this map (data drawn from eBird) of the three most widespread species. Redder colors indicate a higher percentage of the given species on eBird checklists. See how the map starts off with only Hermit Thrushes in the U.S.? Also note the different timing and paths of Swainson’s and Veery. (If you’re curious about Wood Thrush, check out this animated map from eBird.)

Animated map of thrush migrationCompare the migration timing of these 3 species of thrushes. Data from eBird.

Bottom line: migration timing, given our sighting info of Massachusetts in April, helps us cross Swainson’s Thrush off the list of possibilities.

4. Plumage details Many times, the combination of the four keys to visual ID, plus knowledge of migration timing, will allow you to identify a bird with certainty. But during peak migration, the Catharus thrushes are on the move throughout much of North America. It’s a good idea to back up your tentative ID by checking some plumage details. (Click on bird names below for more in-depth information at All About Birds.)

Hermit ThrushHermit Thrush by Corey Hayes via Birdshare.

If we’re leaning toward Hermit Thrush, we can go back to the visual details to make us more confident. The eyering on this bird is more prominent than Veery, the other main suspect after we consider migration timing (above). And a distinctly red cast to the tail, contrasting with a brown back, is another hallmark of Hermit Thrush. One last thing we could do in the field is keep an ear out for its beautiful, echoing song—oh, holy holy, ah, purity purity, eeh, sweetly sweetly—a thrush’s springtime Ode to Joy.

Swainson’s Thrush by Laura Myers via Birdshare.

Swainson’s Thrush has the most distinctive face pattern among the Catharus thrushes: a bold, buffy eyering connecting to buffy lores to form “spectacles” against a brown face. The breast spotting is indistinct, and the upperparts are a uniform brown (usually a subdued olive-brown, or reddish-brown in the West). Their songs are flutelike and spiral higher and higher as the song goes on. They lack the Hermit Thrush’s clear introductory note.

The Veery is warm rusty-red all over, and has the least distinct spotting on the underparts of any of these five thrush species. Its fluting songs tumble progressively downward; they also have a distinctive, short call note that sounds like part of its name: veer.

Hermit ThrushGray-cheeked Thrush by Andy Johnson via Birdshare.

More possibilities: Gray-cheeked Thrush and Bicknell’s Thrushes The two others in our 5-species group, Gray-cheeked and Bicknell’s, aren’t as commonly seen as the previous three. They do occur widely in the East during migration, though (especially Gray-cheeked), so it’s good to be on the lookout. Gray-cheeked Thrushes are somber olive-brown across the upperparts, with a plain grayish-brown face that at best shows only a hint of an eyering. The breast has distinct spots. Their song is jumbled and burry, ending on a falling pitch.

Bicknell’s Thrush by Sharon Richards via Birdshare.

Bicknell’s Thrush was split out as a full species from Gray-cheeked Thrush only in the 1990s. Its plumage is essentially identical, but its song is different and its breeding range (parts of New England and northeastern Canada) and wintering range (Caribbean, particularly Hispaniola) are different.

5. So—which species? Let’s put it all together: the bird in the top image is a thrush with a thin eyering and distinct spots on the breast. It is brown above with a warmer rusty color on the tail. It is a winter resident and early migrant across much of the continent—it’s a Hermit Thrush! Armed with this approach—four keys and a sense of timing—now you can head outside and practice these steps with any thrush you encounter. Good luck!

For more help with bird identification:

(Thanks to Benjamin Van Doren/BirdCast for preparing the map images.)


  • Sarah

    My very avid birdwatcher mother used a kind of nmemonic to differentiate between wood and hermit thrushes. It alway worked for me. WooD thrush has darker red color on its heaD (both end in D). HermiT thrush has darker red color on its Tail (no D in hermit? not sure). But it works. I’ve also “stalked” them by following their songs and seeing what the singer looks like. Never seen a veery, but it has a great song.

  • klw

    I had a hermit thrush coming to eat dried mealworms every day since January. He was usually nearby waiting for the daily filling of worms. He always tried to beat the bluebirds and squirrels to the table. He would come very close to me as I talked to him and watch him eat. He was almost tame! This is the first hermit thrush I have had stay around that long. I haven’t seen him for a few days, so maybe he has migrated north. It was such a pleasure to feed and watch this beautiful tail-bobber! Thanks for the thrush info today.

  • Sighted a lone Hermit Thrush in western Minnesota (Minn-So.Dak Border near Big Stone Lake) in mid April. Environs were grasses and shrubbery along small river.

  • Melissa H

    This is a fantastic article – one of the best bird ID walk-throughs I have ever seen. I might suggest that you seek a different Hermit Thrush photo to use under #4: Plumage. Right now, it’s just the “mystery bird” photo mirrored, which is a bit of a giveaway. :)

  • Joseph Verica

    Great article! It would be nice to have links to the songs built into the text of the article.

  • Keith

    Sheesh, Cornell you have no qualms about soliciting and accepting donations from Canadians. Would it be that much trouble to show these as North American apps?

  • Hugh

    Hi Keith – sorry that the map only shows the U.S. This is not because we don’t care about Canadians! It’s more about data analysis—these maps are compiled from actual eBird observations. There are fewer such observations for Canada than for the U.S.—especially, as you can imagine, as you go farther north in Canada. So it’s just a more difficult problem to estimate the occurrences for Canada at the moment. Thanks for reminding us about it though! – Hugh

  • Hugh

    Hi Joseph – thanks for the suggestion. Sorry we don’t have playable sounds in the post, but as you may know you can click on each species name to visit All About Birds, where the sounds are playable. Hope this helps – Hugh

  • Hillel B

    ‘Like the graphics, though you don’t have any for the GCTH or BITH… :-(

    So as regards the SWTH, the graphic suggests that a very small segment of the total population breeds in the northeast. How far has this population diverged genetically?

  • We had a Hermit Thrush hanging around deck this winter until about 3 weeks ago (southern NJ). He had a symbiotic relation with the Red Bellied & Downy Woodpeckers who fed on our suet feeders…the Thrush would wait under the feeders for the woodpeckers to drop suet bits on the deck and feed on them. He (or she) was here about 3 months!!

  • Cheryl Feia

    Hermit Thrush

  • Georgia Weatherhead

    It’s an LBJ. [Little Brown Job]

  • Klilly

    The thrushes makes one of most beautiful sounds in the woods. they are my fav bird sounds

  • Klilly

    I agree birds of different sorts come through that you ask yourself what the heck is that. I love getting up early in the mornings it seems like every bird in the country is singing. The Hermit thrush would stand above the rest. My family tell me I am crazy when I pick out which sound is which bird.

  • Frances S

    I have a question? How are these birds related to thrashers? I was in SW Texas for a time and we had a Long-billed thrasher coming to our water drip. He looked alot like this bird pictured. He was a hoot. He chased off other birds that came to bathe in the pan. And no bird I have ever seen takes as good a bath as he did. Fairly wallowed in it. The water did more to draw in birds than any feeder we ever put out.

  • Susan

    This is a great article. Thank you!

  • Gay Sherlock

    I so enjoyed this….am waiting for MY hermit thrush to show up….my day will be complete and I won’t go too many places until I know that he (or she) is again on his way to another area….

  • I knew it to be a Hermit thrush right away. The rusty tail was a good clue, plus, they like to wag their tails, which, this one looks like it is doing.

  • The red tail, and the act that they tend to wag or flick their tails, which in this photo, it appears that the tail is in an upward position.

  • Julie H

    A suggestion for tricky bird ID is to include the description and photos of newly fledged brown thrashers along with the thrushes. The dark eyes, darker plumage, and shorter tails than the adult thrashers could be confusing. Also, brown thrashers begin fledging early in the spring when thrushes are migrating.

  • Daniel Long

    Thanks for this great article. I managed to get a picture of a brownish bird just this morning and was having difficulty identifying it. After reading this post, I have determined that it is indeed a Veery…my first! I’ve been birding for almost three years as a new hobby in Florida and information such as this makes it more enjoyable. Thank you!

  • Dee

    Had a little reddish brown bird a little bigger then a hummingbird, it almost sounds like a rattlesnake..

    [This comment has been migrated from an earlier post version by Cornell Lab staff.]

  • Michael Simmons

    OK but you do not have to analyse the whole of Canada. Surely you could select from the area of southern Canada where there is sufficient density of observations. After all that is where most of us live ! Michael

  • EllieK

    In September, I found a bird on a street in Boston. I have been trying to identify it. It looks like Veery or Hermit Thrush. It has reddish brown feathers on its wings and back. It has brown spots on its chest feathers. It perches, but prefers to sit at the bottom of the cage at night. It whistles/sings at night. I thought it is a common nightingale, but it has not been observed in America. I don’t know what I found.