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Hermit Thrushes

Dear Bird Folks,

Today I had a Hermit Thrush at our platform feeder, eating suet that I had shaved for our many bluebirds. Is it unusual for this poor guy to be here during the winter?

-J. G,, Brewster, MA


You know J.G.,

I’m no expert on meat products or what they look like when they’ve gone bad. But I have a suspicion that if you need to “shave” your suet before you can serve it to your birds, it might be a sign that it’s been around too long. Just a thought.

Thrushes are an interesting family of birds. Much like your friends at a party, they fall into two distinct groups, colorful and friendly or shy and dull. Here in the East, our two colorful thrushes are the ubiquitous robin and the shaved-suet-loving bluebird. Many of us forget, or never knew, or don’t much care, that robins and bluebirds are actually thrushes, but they are. These two thrushes love to come to our yards to eat or build their nests. The six other species of thrushes which visit Cape Cod are not real interested in hanging out with humans. They like to stay hidden and come packaged in a plane brown wrapper of feathers so they don’t draw attention to themselves. (The dull colored thrushes would want me to mention that they are amazing singers, but that’s a story for anther time.) In addition these thrushes aren’t as likely to be found in large flocks like robins or bluebirds. More often they are found alone, like, a … hermit.

The Hermit Thrush is the hardiest of all the brown thrushes. They are the first to return in the spring and the last to leave in the fall. And even when they do leave they don’t migrate all that far. In fact, many hermits spend their off-season in the U.S., braving our harsh winters, while all the other thrushes escape to the toasty tropics.

Research tells us that the female Hermit Thrushes migrate the furthest south, while the males stay on the northern tier of their winter range, which just happens to be, among other places, Cape Cod. The males don’t spend the winter in the north because they are too lazy to fly south or to prove they are macho. When nesting season returns they want to be the first ones back to the breeding grounds. The first males back in the spring can claim the best territories and that means they get the best pick of the returning hot females. Yes, even hermits need some excitement once in a while.

Getting the choice breeding territory is the male’s reward for enduring the tough winters of the north, but they may pay a price. Many young, tough, male Hermit Thrushes are lost when the weather becomes more than they can handle. For example, last winter was more than most of us could handle and I’m sure a lot of thrushes struggled.

This winter has been just the opposite. For the most part it’s been fairly mild. Also, this winter we have a lot more sightings of what we might call “summer birds.” It seems everyday someone is calling about a warbler, oriole, or tanager sighting. It’s hard to know for sure why we have so many summer birds this year, but I have a theory. Want to hear it? Huh? Sorry, you didn’t say no fast enough. Now you have to listen.

I’d be willing to bet that most winters, Cape Cod has a fair number is theses warm weather birds that end up here because they are lost, lazy or refused to ask for directions. In a normal winter many of these birds would have been eliminated by our unforgiving weather, but due to this year’s wimpy winter many are still around. Now that it’s late winter, much of the natural food has been eaten and the wintering tanagers, orioles, and in your case a thrush, are more or less being forced to find food at our feeders. Thus, more people are seeing and reporting them. How’s that sound? Remember, this is just my theory. I have no evidence to back it up, so don’t quote me. If you do I’ll simply say that I had “faulty intelligence” and I’ll be instantly off the hook.

I have to admit J.G., even though Hermit Thrushes are usually seen on Cape Cod every winter, I don’t get many reports of them visiting feeders. You are lucky. It must be your trick of using shaved suet that is the attraction. I think I’ll try using some of that myself, but I’m not going to cut it with my razor. I’ll wait for my wife to go to bed and then I’ll borrow hers. She uses an electric shaver and I think that will do a better job.