Door to Nature: Thrushes of Door County

The thrush family of songbirds is well represented in Wisconsin and Door County. That term is not usually used, however, when most people talk about the American robin, which is perhaps our most common thrush.

These birds are in the scientific family called Turdidae, which includes bluebirds, robins and solitaires, as well as the spotted-breasted thrushes that we long to see during spring migration.

There were six Swainson’s thrushes – whose distinct, light eye ring is one of its field marks – on my lawn earlier this year. They breed in conifer forests throughout Canada and into Alaska, and there are confirmed nestings in several far-northern Wisconsin counties.

One of the Swainson’s thrushes moving around in my backyard one mid-May morning was searching for insects on the ground. Its hunting technique was to hop a few feet and then “shiver” its legs to stir up some food. 

The gray-cheeked thrush nests farther north than any of the spotted-breasted thrushes. In fact, far northeastern Russia has a breeding population that, after nesting, crosses the Bering Strait and migrates south through North America.

All of the species migrate north after spending the winter in the southern U.S., Central America or South America. The earliest to arrive are the American robins, and some winters, we see a small number of robins staying in Door County. These might be birds that bred in Alaska and decided northern Wisconsin is as far as they wanted to fly for the “off-season.”

The next earliest species to arrive here is the eastern bluebird. They and the robins arrive in March to begin setting up their breeding territories. Studies have shown that migrating birds usually return to within a mile of where they were hatched and raised.

I remember fondly the first year that I lived in The Ridges Sanctuary’s Upper Range Light and learned the ethereal song of the wood thrush. Its haunting call came from the woodland, where it prefers to live. That species and the veery – another spotted-breasted thrush – have calls and songs that are mystical and memorable.

The veery has spots mainly at the neck and far upper part of its breast. The wood thrush – which nests throughout most of the state – has the most heavily spotted breast of all of these ground-dwelling birds. 

A member of this tribe, the hermit thrush, has nested in my woods – or at least was present for much of the summer – for many years. This bird has a definite rusty tail, which makes it one of the easiest to identify. I would watch for it to come to the shallow satellite dish soon after sunset to take its bedtime bath. 

Hermit thrushes breed mainly in the northern part of Wisconsin. Their song is not quite as robust as that of the wood thrush, but it is nonetheless beautiful. We used to hear them singing in the woods of the northern sections of Whitefish Dunes State Park.

The hermit thrush is the only one of the group known to slowly raise and lower its tail repeatedly as it perches. We also find that it is often the earliest of the spotted-breasted thrushes to migrate north, often by very early April, and the last to move south in autumn. A hermit thrush was seen on two of our Christmas bird counts in the Brussels circle: one in 1999 and another in 2019.

The rusty plumaged veery prefers to dwell in low wetland woods and brushy creeks. We used to hear them when we biked along County Q north of Baileys Harbor. Its song is so unusual: It sounds like someone playing a xylophone with mallets going up and down the scale at the same time. 

Eastern bluebirds are the favorite open-country species in the thrush family that nests in our area. Unlike most others that nest on the ground or in tree branches, the bluebird is a cavity nester. That’s why we build lots of nest boxes to help them thrive.

We who volunteer with the Bluebird Restoration Association of Wisconsin learned that bluebirds’ intestines grow longer in autumn to accommodate a diet of fruits during the winter when live insects are not as abundant. While studying the thrushes, the Birder’s Handbook says that most other species in this clan feed on fruit as part of their winter diet.

Get outside in the proper habitats to learn the songs of the thrushes, and do all you can to ensure their survival by supporting groups that save wetlands and woods, where these musical birds live.