Editor’s Note: The following column was printed in the Union Leader on Saturday, Jan. 31, 1987. Written by Stacey Cole, shown in the photo, the column heading was “Nature Talks from Down on the Farm.”
DURING THE nearly 25 years that I have been writing this column, we have received a few letters telling of sightings of varied thrush. Until Jan. 5 of this year, I had never seen one.
The varied thrush has been called “Oregon Robin” and “Alaskan Robin”, and as these nicknames indicate, it is a bird of northwest North America. Indeed it does look and act very much like our friendly robin. Its measurements are almost identical, and it has the same chunky appearance of the robin.
When the naturalist John Burroughs served as a member of the Harriman Expedition to Alaska in 1899, he saw his first varied thrush. Burroughs was so impressed he penned the following:
“O Varied Thrush! Oh Robin strange!
Behold my mute surprise
Thy form and flight I long have known.
But not this new disguise.”
William Finley, writing in “Birds of America,” published by Garden City Publishing Company Inc., in 1936, said of the varied thrush:
“ ... (It) lives back in the mountains in the wilder sections where the timber is most dense. The bird has a weird and mysterious note, a sort of monotone song that can be imitated by using a combination whistle and voice note.
“The varied thrush is driven down from the high mountains by the snows of winter. When the first comes into the valleys, the later fruits are hanging on vine and tree. He seems to be ravenously hungry for the sweet-tasting fruit that has been planted by man. His taste sometimes turns to grapes and apples to such an extent that some farmers think him a nuisance.
“If one wants to have varied thrushes about his home during the winter, all he has to do is to leave some apples hanging on one of the old trees of the orchard. After the leaves have fallen, the thrushes will stay as long as the apples last. They seem to live almost entirely on this fruit, especially when the snow is on the ground.”
The varied thrush that Mildred and I saw was feeding on mixed bird seed that had been thrown out by a friend’s son on their driveway. Varied thrushes are great insect feeders when insects are plentiful. At other seasons, they enjoy weed seeds, juniper and other berries, and yes, even acorns.
We were told by telephone of the thrush being present in the outskirts of the city of Keene. Fairly late one afternoon we drove there hoping we might be fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of it. We parked at the end of our friends’ driveway, sat in our truck and waited. It was at 3:20 p.m. exactly when what appeared to be a common robin hopped out from under some lilac bushes onto the driveway. It joined several mourning doves, blue jays, northern juncos, tree sparrows and chickadees that were feeding there.
The thrush busied itself pecking away at the seeds for five minutes or so, then thinking danger was abroad, it skittered hastily back beneath the protection of the lilacs. Both Mildred and I got a good look at it through our binoculars. It was a male, for it had a heavy black band across its breast (females have a gray band.) One of the differences I noted, as I compared the varied thrush to the robin, was the distinct orange wing bars and orange eye stripe. The bird certainly looked to be in prime condition. After just a few minutes, it reappeared for another short stay. But was too soon gone.
The next morning found us guests of our friends on their front porch. I mounted my 400 millimeter lens to the tripod, attached the camera to the lens, focused it to the approximate location I had last seen the varied thrush and waited.
We waited and waited some more. As a matter of record, our stay lasted over two hours, but the thrush apparently either had overslept or had found greener pastures. Finally we gave up.
Nearly two weeks later they phoned to say that the bird had not returned that day nor for several days after that. It did come back, though, but its last visit was very short. It appears now that the bird has left for good.
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According to the recently received “Winter Season New Hampshire Bird Records,” published by the Audubon Society of New Hampshire, covering the period of Dec. 1, 1984 — Feb. 28, 1985, this was the eighth consecutive year for varied thrush in New Hampshire.I’m not sure whether this species was seen during the last winter season or not. If so, this 1987 sighting would make 10 straight years that this bird of the Northwest has visited our state. Perhaps one day they will be as common as the evening grosbeak. I say that because evening grosbeaks were considered by Edward Howe Forbush as “Western” birds. The first recorded extension of its range east of the Great Lakes was at Toronto, Canada, in 1854. Up to the winter of 1889-90 the bird was almost unknown in New England. In January 1890, evening grosbeaks were first seen in Massachusetts and, according to Forbush, they didn’t become common in northern New England until well into the early 1900s.
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The winter season is an excellent time to begin the hobby of bird watching. There are not nearly as many species commonly seen in winter, so it is relatively easy to start. Also there are birds not usually seen that can bring excitement to the chase. Among the unusual possibilities are the varied thrush, horned lark, Bohemian waxwing, dickcissel, song sparrow, snow bunting, Lapland longspur and yes, an occasional robin.
Stacey Cole, Nature Talks columnist for more than 50 years, passed away in November. If readers have a favorite column written by Stacey that they would like to see reprinted, please drop a note to Jen Lord at email@example.com.