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Hermit Thrush

Dear Birds Folks,

There has been a thrush, maybe a Hermit Thrush, drinking from my birdbath most every day since last fall. Do you think it will stay around all summer?

– Robert, Sandwich, MA


Me, too, Robert,

I, too, have had a Hermit Thrush coming to my birdbath. In fact, many folks have reported Hermit Thrushes visiting their birdbaths throughout the Cape this year. Thrushes must be trending. Hey, maybe we should start a thrush club. We could have our first meeting as soon as it’s safe to get near each other again…in about ten years from now, or so.

Two of the most familiar members of the thrush family are robins and bluebirds, and those two species are readily distinguishable from one another. But there are also several species of “spotted-breasted” thrushes, and they can be tricky to identify. All of these birds are brown on the back with various amounts of spotting in the front; this includes the aforementioned Hermit Thrush. But when it comes to identifying this particular thrush, there is one piece of information that is very helpful to know…the date. All of our other spotted thrushes leave North America for the winter, but like the Pine Warblers we discussed last week, Hermit Thrushes are short-distance migrants. They are quite happy to spend the non-breeding season in the Southern states, with a few hardy souls riding it out here on Cape Cod. Therefore, if you see a thrush in your Sandwich birdbath in January, you don’t even have to look in your bird book, just write down Hermit Thrush. It’s that easy. You can worry about identifying all of the other spotted thrushes in the summer, which is coming up, if our officials don’t cancel that, too.

With the population of most thrush species in decline, the Hermit Thrush offers us some good news: its numbers appear to be increasing. In addition to the thrush in my yard, I nearly always see one while on my daily bird walks. The key word in that last sentence is “one.” As its name implies, the Hermit Thrush tends to be a loner. According to the dictionary, a hermit is defined as “living in solitude, often for religious reasons.” Hermit Thrushes live in solitude all right but it’s not for religious reasons. They’ll leave religion to the cardinals. (Get it?)

Usually, if I accidently startle a bird, any bird, it flies off in fright and will continue on to some distant location. But if I disturb a Hermit Thrush, it barely moves. Instead of flying away, it merely hops up onto a nearby branch and stares back at me, looking more annoyed than frightened. It may also raise its rust-colored tail and then slowly lower it, in an apparent sign of disgust. In addition to its rusty tail and its propensity for being a loner, this bird has one other noted trait, its voice. The brown and unassuming Hermit Thrush quite possibly has the most beautiful song of any bird in America.

As is the case with anything subjective, choosing the best singer is likely to generate much debate. Some folks love the energetic quality we hear from wrens, or the fierce vibe given by Red-tailed Hawks, or the primitive tone of the Common Loon. And the mockingbird’s list of impressions is remarkable. But we can see the wren chattering on the birdhouse, or the hawk screaming from high overhead, or the mocker running through its repertoire from the top of a pole or TV antenna (back when such things existed). But the thrush’s beautiful and mysterious song seems to originate from no apparent source. They usually sing in late evening, when the light is poor and from deep in the woods. We hear the song and look around for the singer, but all we find are ferns, moss and shadows. And even if the lighting were better, finding the bird would still be a challenge. The echoing song has an amazing ventriloquist quality to it. Maybe it’s coming from over there, but maybe it isn’t…and it usually isn’t.

The Hermit Thrush, as well as some of its other equally skilled singing cousins (Wood Thrush, Swainson’s Thrush, etc.), is able to produce such amazing sounds due to the fact that it has a double voice box (syrinx). The bird is literally able to sing a duet with itself. Anyone who has gone on a summer camping trip is very likely to be familiar with the mystical sound of the Hermit Thrush. Just hearing it sing brings back a flood of memories and makes me feel kind of goose bumpy all over. Many sources refer to the thrush’s call as “ethereal,” but since I don’t know what that word means, I’m sticking with goose bumpy.

It will be interesting to see what happens with our thrushes, Robert. My guess is they will abandon our backyards as things warm up and move into deeper woods either here on the Cape or in some other isolated location. Remember, Hermit Thrushes didn’t earn their name by being sociable. Speaking of their name: After I received your question, I told my wife about it and before I finished writing this column, I could smell something good coming from the kitchen. She had made, appropriately, a tasty batch of hermit (no relation) cookies. I had almost forgotten how good they were. Maybe next week I’ll tell her that someone sent in a question about a Boston Cream Pie thrush. If it works and I get a pie out of it, I’ll save you a slice. You can pick it up as soon as it’s safe to meet again…you know, ten years from now.