by Gail Cleveland
Northwest Montana is blessed with a number of species from the family of Turdidae or Thrushes. These include the Western and Mountain Bluebird, Townsend’s Solitaire, American Robin, Varied Thrush as well three species of the genus Catharus: the Swainson’s Thrush, Veery, and the subject of this article: the Hermit Thrush.
The Western and Mountain Bluebird are known for their distinctive coloring. The others are not so brightly colored and are known for their spring and summer songs that brighten the mornings and evenings. The American Robin’s song seems ubiquitous in the cities and woods alike; the seldom seen gray Townsend’s Solitaire sings a continuous disjointed warble from high perches. With his upward swirl of haunting notes, the Swainson’s Thrush can be found mostly in lower woodlands. The Varied Thrush sings his flutelike high-speed trill on various pitches in forested high elevations. The least prevalent thrush in our area, the Veery, is usually found near streams or boggy areas singing a song which sounds like descending organ music. The Hermit Thrush, having been called the American nightingale, in our area can be found at high elevations singing his mesmerizing, melancholy song on a variety of pitches.
People often wonder why the songs of thrushes are so hauntingly beautiful. NPR Bird Notes explains it well: “The answer is that the birds have a double voice box. Bird song emanates from a complex structure, unique to birds, called the syrinx. Syrinx is also the Greek word for the musical instrument we call panpipes, which have multiple pipes. It’s a fitting name for this essential part of a bird’s vocal anatomy. Because, like panpipes, birds have two separate pipes to sing with. A fine singer like a thrush can voice notes independently and simultaneously from each half of its syrinx, notes which blend brilliantly as ethereal, harmonious tones.” The thrushes essentially harmonize with themselves but not always as we humans would call harmoniously, but nevertheless, the songs are awe inspiring. Henry David Thoreau, John Burroughs and Walt Whitman, all wrote poems waxing romantically on the songs of the thrushes.
Hermits are one of the latest of the thrushes to arrive in late spring in Northwest Montana. Marias Pass, Logan Pass and on the Big Mountain are good places to listen for them from early June to mid-July. During this breeding season, they often sing from the tops of trees, so they are visible to see with binoculars. Otherwise, Hermit Thrushes are usually found near the ground around the trunks of trees or fallen logs, scraping in leaf litter while foraging for insects and larvae or making their low soft “chup” call.
If the male Hermit Thrush is successful in finding a mate using his vocal prowess, the female builds the nest. West of the mountains the nest will be in a shrub or tree branch, rarely above eye level; east of the mountains, it will be on the ground. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Website, the female builds her nest of grass, leaves, pine needles, bits of wood surrounded by mud and lichen. She puts finer plant materials like willow catkins on the inside, taking up to 10 days to build the nest. The male finds food for the 3-6 possible nestlings, while the female remains in the nest. The incubation period is 11-13 days while the nestling period is 10-15.
Hermit Thrush populations stayed relatively stable between 1966 and 2015, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. The Hermit Thrush is not on the 2016 State of North America’s Birds’ Watch List. One reason for its success is contributed to the fact that its winter range goes only as far as Central Mexico, and many also winter on the West Coast and in the southern United States rather than tropical Central and South America where habitat is shrinking.
Of our local thrushes, the two that are most difficult to visually distinguish are the Swainson’s and the Hermit. Both have gray brown backs and black spots on their white breasts. The Hermit has a russet tail and its black spots are bolder with a darker malar stripe on its neck. The best way to tell them apart is, of course, the song.
To listen to the Hermit Thrush and Swainson’s Thrush, as well as the Varied Thrush and the Veery, go the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website: www.allaboutbirds.org.
It is the beginning of February and I have just seen my first Hermit Thrush of the year 2020. I am excited. I am, also, not in Montana, but southern Arizona where they winter and breed. I will be even more excited to hear the eerie, swirling, varied-pitch melody of the Hermit Thrush calling to females in June in Northwest Montana.