Illustration by H. Douglas Pratt
This species’ often confiding nature, distinctive plumage, pleasing song, and acceptance of human-dominated habitats make it one of the most beloved of North American birds. Polytypic. Length 10" (25 cm).
Identification A distinctive, potbellied bird. Forages on lawns and other areas of short vegetation for earthworms and other invertebrates in a run-and-stop pattern typical of terrestrial thrushes. Adult: depending on sex and subspecies, head, with white eye arcs, varies from jet black to gray, with white supercilia and throat, blackish lores and lateral throat stripe. Underparts vary, often in tandem with head color, from deep, rich reddish maroon to gray-scalloped, peachy orange. Males tend to be darker, females grayer, but overlap makes determining sex of many problematic. Throat streaked black and white; belly and undertail coverts white. Upperparts medium gray; tail blackish, with white corners. Bill color yellow with variable, season-dependent, black tip. Legs dark. Juvenile: spotted dark on underparts; whitish on upperparts and wing coverts. Older immatures not distinguishable from adults; small percentage retain a few juvenal wing coverts or other feathers. Flight: quick, flicking wingbeats followed by short, closed-wing glides. Wing linings color of underparts; remiges blackish.
Geographic Variation Seven subspecies, 5 in North America. Widespread taiga and northeastern migratorius described; north Pacific coastal caurinus and widespread western propinquus (larger, paler) with white tail corners small or lacking; Canadian maritime nigrideus dark brownish to blackish above, underparts deep rufous, medium-size tail corners; southeast United States achrusterus smaller, upperparts browner, smaller tail corners.
Similar Species Duller females possibly mistaken for the eyebrowed thrush. Juveniles possibly confused with spotted thrushes.
Voice Call: variable; low, mellow single pup; doubled or trebled chok or tut; shriller and sharper kli ki ki ki ki; high and descending, harsh sheerr. Flight note: very high, trilled, descending sreeel. Song: clear, whistled phrases of 2 or 3 syllables cheerily cheery cheerily cheery, with pauses; lacks the burry quality of many tanagers; pheucticus grosbeaks typically have different tempo.
Status and Distribution Common and widespread. Breeding: wide variety of wooded or shrubby habitats with open areas. Migration: short to medium-distance migrant. Departs northerly winter-only areas by ±10 April; arrival northern Great Lakes ±20 March; central Alaska ±1 May. Strong facultative aspect (particularly in East) in fall, so variable timing; departs southern Canada ±20 October. Winter: mainly lower 48 and Mexico; also southernmost Ontario and British Columbia, Bahamas (rare), northern Guatemala. Vagrant: widely in Europe; casual to Jamaica and Hispaniola.
Population Strong adaptability and widespread distribution suggest little concern.
—From the National Geographic book Complete Birds of North America, 2006
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