The quiet solitude of thrushes in winter

I have always liked thrushes. They form a venerable and famous family of birds, but at the same time are common and familiar sights. I find this to be part of the appeal of birds in general — that creatures ripe with ancient and powerful associations, animals I might read about in old poems can enter in my daily life and add a dash of magic to the world.

The thrush family includes many notable members, including bluebirds and robins, as well as birds bearing the word “thrush” more clearly in their name. They are small- to medium-sized songbirds that feed mostly on invertebrates and fruit. Most have a somewhat plump form, stubby bills, rather long legs and a demeanor of cautious alertness.

In fall, three species in particular grab my attention: robins, varied thrushes and hermit thrushes.

Robins are the most familiar. The size of plump jays, with reddish breasts, gray backs and yellow bills, American robins are commonly encountered eating berries in trees or hunting worms on lawns. Robins are present in Marin all year round, but winter is actually their season of greatest abundance as additional migrants come down from the north or higher elevations.

What is notable about winter robins? One good place to start is the absence of their famous song and all the associated behaviors of the nesting season. Robins are excellent examples of a seasonal shift in social habits, a concept that is unfamiliar to humans, but common and important in birds. While robins defend territories in pairs each spring, in winter, they gather into flocks for greater effectiveness in finding food and awareness of predators. Watch for this in the winter robins: not singing, but chuckling in flocks, not singly searching the lawn, but descending in a swarm upon a berry-laden tree.

In addition to robins, there is a second large thrush present in Marin: the varied thrush. This bird is similar in size and shape to their more familiar cousin, but is far less well-known, only coming down from the Pacific Northwest in winter and generally keeping a low profile in dark, shady forests. If you are fortunate enough to see them well, they are striking birds — gray, with orange breasts, eyebrows and highlights in the wings.

Varied thrushes are a western specialty, and don’t have the continent-spanning reputation of robins and hermit thrushes. But while it’s nice to have a family of birds so rich in cultural associations, it’s also nice to have our own unique representative, a bird that still holds on to its mysteries. And this one has more mysteries than most.

If you are just making their acquaintance, that general atmosphere of quiet secrets is probably their first alluring feature. Why go out to the woods in search of varied thrushes this winter? Because to walk down a quiet path and listen as you merge into the shadows is to exit from the noisy and well-lit is to discover other worlds. Varied thrushes are the eerie voice and shadowy form of the dark, damp forest.

Robins and varied thrushes are the two large thrushes of Marin, while our most notable small thrush is the hermit thrush, a brown-backed, speckle-breasted, sparrow-sized bird. It is worth a summer trip to the forests to hear their celebrated songs. But you will see far more hermit thrushes in winter, when northern or montane breeders spread out in the lowlands, including most residential areas. Watch for them feeding at berries, hunting invertebrates in the leaf litter, or occasionally visiting feeder stations for mealworms or suet.

Why seek out these birds in winter, another famous singer in their songless season? Like the robins, they exhibit a strong seasonal shift in behavior, in this case not toward flocking, but toward quiet solitude. Like the varied thrushes, they carry with them an air of the quiet forest, a subtle, earth-toned life that we can so easily overlook. More than any other bird in this great family of singers, the hermits evoke those associations of beautiful and unworldly music, no matter what the season. And so I love to see those quiet birds that others miss and know that inside them song is ripening.