“So there’s a thrush that lives on my deck,” I said to another birder, in the course of conversation. (She is a much better birder than I am, and we had just been out after a Northern Lapwing, which was her 600th ABA listed bird.)
“Uh-huh,” she said, flipping through photos on her phone.
“It’s a hermit thrush.”
“Uh-h—wait, what? A hermit thrush? Living on your deck?”
“Are you sure it was a hermit? Spotted breast, reddish tail–”
“Complete white eye-ring. Yup. I had the people on the Cornell forum ID him and everything.”
“But they’re shy. There’s a reason they call them hermit thrushes.”
As is always the case in birding, a picture—even a crappy cel-phone picture—is worth a thousand fieldmarks.
She looked at my phone and said “Well, I’ll be damned. That’s a hermit thrush.”
Indeed he is. This is Thrush-Bob.
Thrush-Bob is one of the few individuals that I recognize in my yard. The titmice and chickadees and cardinals are largely interchangeable, but Thrush-Bob is the only hermit thrush, just as Vulture-Bob is the only black vulture and Turkey-Bob is the solitary young male wild turkey (not to be confused with Stud-Bob, the turkey with the harem, who is a veritable Ricardo Montalban among turkeys.)
The astute reader may begin to notice a certain similarity of names.
(There are some not named Bob—spring brings us the male mourning cloak who patrols the yard and doesn’t have a name, and Single Female Hummingbird who raises a family in the yard, but I default to “Bob.”)
My birder friend was right to be surprised. Hermit thrushes are supposed to be shy. All the bird books will inform you that they are often heard but seldom seen. That Thrush-Bob lives on my deck—literally lives there, perching on the flowerpots and lurking under the deck chairs—flies in the face of common birder wisdom. There’s an Iroquois legend that the hermit thrush cheated the eagle out of his song, and so now must live (and sing) in hiding.
Thrush-Bob clearly did not get the memo.
In fact, Thrush-Bob is not at all shy. He stares at the cat through the glass (the cat stares back, quivering, with such intensity that we call it “Thrush TV”) and if he is out of mealworms and feels that we are being remiss in delivering the daily shipment, he will hurl himself at the glass, pecking it with his beak. He is still wary of the dogs, who are loud and rambunctious, but if I go quietly out on the deck in my gardening gloves, he sits on the corner post of the railing and watches me. As long as I go directly to the stairs and do not move toward him, he sees no reason to get up and leave (and we’re talking perhaps a six foot distance between us.)
I have mixed feelings about his acclimation. On the one hand, I’m not keen on getting wild animals used to humans under most circumstances. On the other hand, it’s not like he’s an alligator, so if he comes to associate humans with food, I don’t think there will be many casualties.
Hermit thrushes overwinter in throughout much of the southern US, up the West Coast, and breed much farther north in Canada. They’re insect eaters, although they’ll add berries in winter, and small frogs in summer. (They would have to be very small frogs, I imagine!) They are ground nesters and are reputed to have one of the most beautiful songs in the bird kingdom. (I wouldn’t know—I’m strictly in his winter range.) If you visit the Cornell Ornithology “Life History” site about hermit thrushes, they will tell you that they rarely visit backyards, but may occasionally forage under shrubs in yards in winters.
So why do I have such a shy bird living here and abusing the cat? My berry shrubs aren’t mature and are providing minimal fodder at the moment (although I’ll put my leaf litter up against anybody’s!) I didn’t start providing mealworms until he’d been here for nearly a week and clearly wasn’t moving on. (The mealworms are shared by Carolina wrens and the occasional messy squirrel, but Thrush-Bob is very clear that they are here on sufferance.)
Well, I have a theory. Hermit thrushes like margins, and they turn up in openings in wooded areas—ponds, trails, meadows and the like. They are also increasingly turning up golf courses, and nests have been spotted in cemeteries. (My yard is prime habitat, in that sense, being a clearing in the middle of a fairly dense woodlot.)
They also are one of the few songbirds whose numbers are increasing.
Nature is full of creatures that were once considered shy, but which have acclimated to humans and are moving into suburbs. Wild turkeys, deer, beavers, coyotes, foxes—they’re all creeeping into urban areas.
Now, this is only a guess, and the plural of “ancedote” is not “data,” but it would not surprise me in the least if hermit thrushes are increasing because they are learning to live on the margins of suburbia. The boldest thrushes have access to all the edge territory created by small copses of trees surrounded by yards—the same sort of habitat that’s led to such catastrophic deer populations in the East. Among songbirds, the ones who seem to be doing well are those we consider “garden birds.” And while a tiny city lot might not see a hermit thrush, a larger lot near a greenway certainly could. In another few years…who knows?
Well, it’s all speculation at this point. I’ve got one thrush, who may just be a weirdo. Thrush-Bob has lived on the deck for about three months, so he’s definitely overwintering there. In another month or two, he will likely leave and join the spring migration north to his breeding grounds.
I’ll miss him when he goes, of course—probably more than I should!—but it’s been cool to host him this winter, and to make sure he’ll head north fat and happy and ready to sing. And who knows—maybe next winter or the winter after that, if I’m quick with the mealworms, Thrush-Bob or one of his kin may return and settle in for the season.
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