Every spring I look forward to the evenings and early hours of morning. I step outside into the cool, fresh air, and listen to one of the prettiest songs I have ever heard. One Swainson’s Thrush sings its heavenward spiralling song close by; more answer it throughout the forest. At times up to seven or more males are scattered in the thickest parts of the forest by our house, defending their territories and competing with each other to attract a females attention. To hear the Swainson’s Thrush song and call, click here.
Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus) are smaller than a Robin, averaging at about 7 inches in length. They are greyish brown, with a white throat, belly, and undertail. The breast is covered with large brown spots that extend and fade down to the belly. It has a white eyering with a pale, creamy lore stripe extending from the front of the eye to the base of the bill. If you get a good look, you can see that it looks as though the thrush is wearing eye glasses. That is one of the main characteristics that you use to identify a Swainson’s Thrush. Grey-cheeked Thrush have no eyeglasses, though they do have a thin eyering. Hermit Thrush have a thick white eyering, but no eyeglasses. Hermit Thrush also have a rich, rufous tail and bigger/bolder breast spots.
Swainson’s Thrush flit their way into the Yukon mainly from mid-May to the end of May, being one of the last songbirds to make it to the Yukon in spring. These birds overwinter in southern-most Mexico, and down through western (and part of central) South America. They leave the Yukon for the winter usually from the second-half of August to early September. These thrush nest in a wide variety of habitats, from cottonwood stands to old-growth spruce forest. Around our yard it is a mix of Black Spruce and Lodgepole Pine, and the Swainson’s Thrush love it. Swainson’s Thrush prefer coniferous forests, particularly spruce. They forage for a mixed diet of bugs (basically any) and berries. At Teslin Lake Bird Observatory, there is a thicket of high-bush cranberries and you often see the Swainson’s Thrush in there stuffing themselves. They mostly forage on the ground, but also by hopping from low branch to low branch. They glean insects from plant foliage and will occasionally ‘flycatch’ in flight.
They nest from early June to late July, building cups out of grasses, stems, small twigs, and moss in trees and shrubs. Their nests can be found up to 6 metres high, but the average height is usually around 2.5 metres high. I found one, possibly two Swainson’s Thrush nests during our years here in Tagish. The first was about two meters high in a small spruce tree with three brown-speckled blue eggs in it. The female seemed to only incubate at night, as I saw her once at 5:30 am, and not once during the day. Unfortunately, the nest was found by a squirrel, and all of the eggs were destroyed. The second nest was just this past summer. I don’t know for sure if it was a Swainson’s Thrush, but it was being built on a ledge just under the eves of our outdoor shower. It was a cup nest of grass. We did have a Swainson’s Thrush nesting in there the year we moved here, but a weasel ate the eggs. This nest remained incomplete; I guess the couple didn’t like their view. Usually one to five eggs are laid, and are incubated by the female for about twelve to thirteen days. The female will only begin incubation after she has laid the third egg. When the eggs hatch, the hatchlings are fed by both parents and usually fledge after ten to twelve days.
Swainson’s Thrush has been observed to be steadily declining, but is currently labeled as ‘Least Concern’.
I could not find any legends about the Swainson’s Thrush, though if I were writing about the Hermit Thrush I would have at least one myth for this part. This is a Scottish poem by Walter Wingate.
I heard a thrush repeat, repeat,
The phrases of his joyous song,
And every note was sweet,
Yet nothing pleased him long;
But like a baffled poet seemed the bird
That seeks and cannot find the one desired word.
And mingled with his broken verse
I heard a blackbird far away,
In fainter tone rehearse
His pæn to the day;
A sonnet, that amendment would but mar,
Inspired, inevitable, perfect as a star.
Yet sing, sweet thrush, and never spare,
The lyric warmest at thy heart,
And leave to colder care
The aftertouch of art;
For eve delighted waits from every side
The very strains that leave thyself unsatisfied!
Birds of the Yukon Territory ~ publish 2003 UBC Press
The Stokes Field Guide to Birds of North America ~Donald and Lillian Stokes