Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Hermit Thrush - Catharus guttatus

Last year, I received some help identifying a little brown bird (LBBs, as such birds are often called.) With the help from you, dear readers, I was finally able to discern that the (really bad) photos I was able to get of my LBB, were photos of a Hermit Thrush.

Today, having found several lovely photos that I'm allowed to share here, I thought I'd write a bit about this rather shy little bird. Perhaps this research will help me find another!

While I saw the bird in early October, I’ve just discovered it is likely to be migrating (though it is not much of a migrator, actually) through Colorado about now, and I am more often to find it in the summertime.

Thrushes include bluebirds, Solitaires, robins, and the Veery. These birds are mostly medium-sized and known for their power of song. Thompson III tells us the brown-spotted thrushes (including our Hermit Thrush) are world class singers: “Their flutelike songs are produced by a complex system of syringeal muscles that are able to create multiple notes simultaneously. These rich vocalizations, which have inspired naturalists and poets for centuries, have evolved to be heard in the thick vegetation of woodland habitats where these thrushes breed.”

These birds are fairly common and widespread but, as its name implies, this species is inconspicuous and quiet; spending much of its time on or near the forest floor. They can be hard to find.


While a highly variable species in color and size, Hermit Thrushes are mainly brown on the upperparts with reddish tails and have the familiar white-dark-white under wing pattern characteristic of Catharus thrushes. These thrushes have white or pale under parts with dark spots on the breast and grey or brownish flanks. The Hermit Thrush has pink legs and feet, a distinct white eye ring and a bill which is pale at the base with a black tip. The upperparts are generally olive-brown or grey-brown (dependent on where it lives; East or West, respectively) with a contrasting, Rufus tail. It cocks its tail up quickly and lowers it slowly and frequently flicks its wings. A distinguishing feature is the reddish rump with longer uppertail-coverts that contrast distinctly with remaining upperparts. This color blends into that Rufus tail.

Its body is rather slender, feet are somewhat long. The bill is dark brown, yellowish towards the base of the lower mandible, and with a black tip. There are a few, longish bristles at the base of its upper mandible. Wings are of ordinary length; its tail is short and even.

Its flight is swift and direct. As the birds moves a short distance, it flies low over the ground and in a gliding manner. Then it hops with the same movement as the American Robin. It may hover briefly over prey.

The Hermit Thrush is more often heard than seen.


  • Size: 6-7 inches ~ smaller than a robin
  • Wingspan: 10-11 inches
  • Weight: 0.81-1.31 ounces
  • Small to medium-sized thrush
  • Brown back, reddish rump and tail
  • Dark spots on breast
  • Thin, white eye ring
  • Bill pale at base of lower mandible, tip black
  • Pink legs and feet
  • Cocks tail up and flicks wings frequently; lifts tail up quickly, lowers it slowly

  • Eastern and northern birds more reddish with olive-brown upperparts, larger and grayer in West; intermediate along Pacific Coast
  • Sexes are similar and immature birds are like adults

Except during winter, this Thrush prefers the darkest, most swampy, and most secluded of habitat. The Hermit Thrush breeds within deciduous, mixed and coniferous forests, favoring internal forest edges of Canada, Alaska and the northeastern and western United States. It winters in the dense, moist cover of the woody growth in both forests and woodlands in the southern US and south to Central America.

Deciduous woodlands and thickets are favored during migration and winter.

While they usually breed only in forests, this thrush will sometimes winter in parks and wooded, suburban neighborhoods. The Hermit Thrush is the only member of its genus to spend the winter in North America.

This is a short distance migrant which migrates at night.

Populations continent-wide are increasing slightly, perhaps because while this bird is subject to the usual enemies such as snakes, foxes, weasels and skunks, as well as some hawks and owls, domestic cats which are so destructive to birds that nest near humans are less a factor for Hermit Thrush, as this bird usually nests in more remote areas which are seldom visited by cats. Also, few birds are more heroic in resisting attacks on their brood. They are capable of creating quite a ruckus over the presence of marauders, which invariably attracts other birds of the vicinity, adding a veritable chorus of protests. The parent birds dive and dart fearlessly, sometimes venturing so close that their wings strike the intruder. This hubbub usually is successful in driving the enemy to cover.


The Hermit Thrush's song, considered by many to be the most beautiful song of any North American bird, is ethereal and flute-like, constructed from a descending musical phrase repeated at different pitches. Outside their breeding range they may occasionally be heard in the late spring, before the birds head north to nest. They often sing from a high open location. Most earlier ornithologists were are unfamiliar with the Hermit Thrush as an accomplished singer; sadly, one must find this bird where it nests, for as it moves on migration it seldom sings.

The song of this thrush is a melodious, fluty warble, not unlike wind chimes. While mostly on one pitch, starting with a clear whistled note followed by two or three higher, twirling phrases. Each phrase, delivered at different pitches, begins with a single, ethereal, flutelike note. Listen here, here or here.

On a page, sounds are rendered as oh, holy holy-ah, purity puriety-eeh, sweetly sweetly. The call most often used in an aggressive context is a sharp chuch: chup, quirk, or tchup…often repeated and sometimes written as tuk-tuk-tuk. When a pair meets near their nest, both give soft, pweet, peet calls. The flight call, often heard during its nocturnal migration, is a clear, plaintive heee.

The exquisite song of this modest bird of the northern woodlands has captivated the affections of a host of bird lovers. It has inspired naturalists and poets for centuries; including Walt Whitman, John Burroughs, Amy Clampitt, Henry Van Dyke and T.S. Elliot.

In his Catalogue of Birds of New Brunswick, M. Chamberlain (1882) described his impressions of the song of the hermit thrush as he heard as follows:

The music of the Hermit never startles you; it is in such perfect harmony with the surroundings it is often passed by unnoticed, but it steals upon the sense of an appreciative listener like the quiet beauty of a sunset. Very few persons have heard him at his best. To accomplish this you must steal up close to his forest sanctuary when the day is done, and listen to the vesper hymn that flows so gently out upon the hushed air of the gathering twilight. You must be very close to the singer or you will lose the sweetest and most tender pathetic passages, so low are they rendered--in the merest whispers. I cannot, however, agree with Mr. Burroughs that he is more of an evening than a morning songster, for I have often observed that the birds in any given locality will sing more frequently and for a longer period in the morning than in the evening. I prefer to hear him in the evening, for there is a difference; the song in the morning is more sprightly--a musician would say "has greater brilliancy of expression"--and lacks the extreme tenderness of the evening song, yet both have the same notes and the same "hymn-like serenity." The birds frequently render their matinal hymns in concert and the dwellers in a grove will burst out together in one full chorus, forming a grander "Te Deum"--more thrilling--than is voiced by surpliced choir within cathedral walls. On one occasion an Indian hunter after listening to one of these choruses for a time said to me, "That makes me feel queer." It was no slight influence moved this red-skinned stoic of the forest to such a speech.


This species is a terrestrial or bush gleaning omnivore. On breeding grounds, takes mostly animal matter, especially insects and other small invertebrates, amphibians, and small reptiles. On migration and in winter, diet supplemented by wide variety of fruits. Generally, thrushes forage on the ground by watching for movement and digging in leaf litter.

During the summer, this thrush forages on the forest floor. Its movement is much like a robin; breast almost to the ground, tail raised a bit, wings drooping it hops and then runs a few steps and stops, its head erect and cocked as it looks and listens.

This thrush also lifts dead leaf litter in bill and tosses it aside to expose ground and foot-quivering (using feet to shake and scare insects out of clumps of dead or newly regenerating grasses) has been observed.

In the winter time, thrushes add equal parts fruit to the insects, feeding in trees and shrubs, adding buds and berries to its diet.


Their nest is a bulky, open cup of grasses, leaves, mosses, twigs, rootlets, hair, mud, and lichens, lined with fine rootlets, fine grasses, hair, moss, bark, and willow catkins. on the ground or relatively low in a tree. The interior dimensions of the nesting bowl are about 2 3/4 inches across by 2 inches deep. The nest a placed on ground, or low in small trees. Oddly, east of the Rockies it usually nests on the ground while in the West it is more likely to nest in trees...though generally not higher than six to eight feet.

Two to five eggs make up a clutch. Eggs are ovate or elongate-ovate and a plain greenish-blue or light-blue with occasional, sparse, brown flecks or spots. Incubation is 11-13 days; chicks fledge in 11-12 days. The number of broods per year may be as high as 2-3, in the south.

Interesting Facts

  • The Hermit Thrush is the state bird of Vermont
  • A group of thrushes are collectively known as a "hermitage" and a "mutation" of thrushes.
  • The hermit thrush is the hardiest member of its group, for it is the first to arrive in spring and the latest to leave in autumn.
  • This bird has been called the Ground Swamp Robin

Photos from the US Fish and Wildlife Service


jozien said...

Hi Beverly,
I just happen to come onto your blog.
Lots of good information. I'll be back as some of your birds are on their way to me. Thanks

Beverly said...


Thank you very much! I have fun with this, and I learn a lot with the research. I shoulda been a librarian! LOL

Thank you for your kind comments; hope to 'see' you again.