It’s been over 25 years since I’ve seen a species of thrush that few of us ever see. In fact, it doesn’t breed or nest here at all, yet this interesting and attractive wild bird shows up in Minnesota on rare occasions. Each and every year, reports from all corners of the state confirm it.
A few days ago, I received an email and a couple of photos that clearly showed that the wanderlust varied thrush is alive and well -- even here in northern Minnesota.
Indeed, not far from Bemidji, Annette Bjoraker spotted one on the ground at her bird feeding station. Curious and eager to identify the unusual-looking visitor, Annette looked through some of her bird books to positively identify the bird.
I enjoyed corresponding with her and validating her unique observation. Annette’s photos were unmistakable, too. The tell-tale blackish breast-band, the orange and blue-gray colors and orange line above the eye, not to mention the bird’s robin-like body type.
After Annette learned that the species is a resident of the West Coast, she asked me, “What would it be doing here?”
And that is precisely the million-dollar question.
It isn’t well understood why this bird of primarily the Pacific Northwest -- that breeds and nests along the California coast and north to British Columbia, Yukon Territory and Alaska -- will migrate eastward in the wintertime.
These individual migrants will show up in nearly every state, but never very many at a time. True to the species’ observed behavior, one showed up at Annette’s place for a few days and then, as inexplicable as its appearance was in the first place, disappeared.
When we talk about thrushes, which the varied thrush is, we’re talking about typically large-bodied, robin-like birds that range throughout North and Central America.
Here in northern Minnesota, seven thrushes can be found: American robin, eastern bluebird, veery, wood thrush, Swainson’s thrush, gray-cheeked thrush and hermit thrush. And every once in a while an eighth thrush appears, as already mentioned, the varied thrush, too.
Mostly a ground-dwelling, insectivorous bird that feeds on a wide variety of insects, varied thrushes also eat fruits, seeds and nuts during the winter. It could very well be that the species’ search for winter foods is what drives some of these birds to migrate eastward. Yet no matter where they end up during the wintertime, they always return west to their breeding and nesting grounds up and down North America’s Pacific coast.
While observing a varied thrush in Minnesota is exceedingly rare, it’s likely made rarer for the fact that this species has declined by as much as 75% since 1966, according to the North American Breeding Survey. Even so, the bird is still considered common in its range despite the apparent population decline.
Not surprisingly, loss of habitat is a significant factor behind decreasing numbers. Varied thrushes are dependent upon old-growth forests of the West Coast and, according to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, do not fare well in forest patches smaller than 40-acres. Moreover, these birds are especially vulnerable to predation by housecats and window strikes.
As I wrote earlier, my first -- and only thus far -- varied thrush observation occurred over 25 years ago at my Becida home. It was a late winter morning as I sat at the dining room table looking outdoors at the backyard bird feeding station, sipping coffee, when I spotted the beautifully patterned, robin-like bird. My Golden book, "Birds of North America," quickly confirmed my first sighting of this exceptional species.
So keep on the lookout. A varied thrush just might show up someday in your backyard, hopping on the ground, looking for food and giving you a brief glimpse of a special treat as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at email@example.com.