Born and Raised in the Northwest
- Last Updated: January 29, 2017
Photos by - Ron Holmes
The Varied Thrush is truly a Northwest bird found near the coast year-round from Northern BC to Northern California. They are forest birds in summer switching to backyard feeder birds in winter as they adapt their diet to the seasons.
In winter, Varied Thrushes are found on the ground near feeders sparring with towhees, juncos and sparrows for territory. However, they’re not so tough when something a little larger shows up like a Northern Flicker, California Quail or even an American Robin. Unlike American Robins which form flocks to feed in winter, the Varied Thrush remains solitary. Occasionally, they will join a group of robins feeding on berries. So don’t dismiss all of those birds as just robins. Take a closer look for the Varied Thrush. They will be a bit smaller, but appear stockier than the robin. Both birds appear black and orange, but have very different patterns.The VATH has an orange eyebrow and black collar. They also have slate-gray backs with slate-gray and orange wing feathers. The male and female look similar with the female appearing duller.
In spring when the VATH is back in the depths of the damp forest, their song can trick you into thinking they’re close. Their single pitched long whistle resonates throughout the forest contributing to their reputation of being a shy, hard to find bird. If you’re lucky enough to zone in on a male singing in spring, be sure to tilt your head back to find the bird high in the top of a conifer. The males show up in the breeding territories before females to establish themselves. Territorial fights between males can be quite aggressive going beyond displays of spreading wings and fanned tail feathers to actually locking bills. The prevailing male will form a monogamous relationship with the female. She gathers the nesting material and constructs the nest near the trunk of a conifer about 10 feet off the ground. The outside of the nest is formed with twigs. Then similar to Robins, a mud/moss layer is added which hardens. The inside of the 4 inch cup is lined with soft dead leaves and additional moss. Varied Thrushes are known to return to successful nesting sites and build new nests nearby or directly on top of old nests. The female lays and incubates 2-5 pale blue, brown flecked eggs for about two weeks. The nestlings are fed a high protein diet of insects and arthropods. Unlike towhees who scratch at the leaf litter to find insects, VATHs clear the ground by taking leaves in their bill and hopping backwards to drop them. The young birds fledge within two weeks. Occasionally, VATHs will rear two broods. Scientists disagree on whether VATHs stay monogamous through the breeding season and beyond.
The migratory patterns of these birds vary depending on where they breed. Scientists believe Northern breeding populations “leapfrog” the year-round coastal birds. So the VATHs who breed in Alaska may migrate south to central California during winter. Northwest populations will migrate from inland breeding grounds to the coastline joining the year-round coastal birds. Further bird banding research will shed light on their migratory behavior. The oldest VATH on record is a male, 4 years, 9 months old, recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in California.
You’re most likely to catch glimpses of this beautiful bird during winter in our area when the population increases with inland migrants and the birds are attracted to backyard feeders and parks where seeds, berries and nuts are available. For a bird to have a reputation of being both shy and aggressive is unusual. The change in the season influences the change in the mood of a VATH. Winter brings on the aggressiveness of a VATH. Summer finds the VATH hanging out shyly in the deep cool forests. How do the seasons affect your mood? Spring is coming soon!