Hermit Thrush are in the winter Piney Woods

By Jay V. Huner
Journal Correspondent

Imagine that you're on a deer stand near a piney woods slough and hear an ethereal, flute-like sound coming from the slough. Maybe you've heard it once or twice before during many years of deer or squirrel hunting. Maybe you've never heard it before. What is the source of the beautiful notes?

Well, you've heard a wintering Hermit Thrush practicing for its spring breeding season in the Far North. It's rare for Hermit Thrushes to sing while spending the winter in the Deep South. It's far more common to hear Hermit Thrushes making a sharp "chupping" sound. If you are among the many woodsmen who know little about the 15-20 birds around most deer stands, you probably don't even notice that call.

If you're a turkey hunter, you are likely to hear a song similar to that of the Hermit Thrush but, in most cases, you are hearing the song of its cousin the Wood Thrush. Hermit Thrushes arrive in the piney woods in the fall about the time that Wood Thrushes leave for more southern climes. They leave about the time that Wood Thrushes return. The songs of the two thrushes are similar but differ enough to separate if both birds are singing near each other.

The thrush family includes robins and thrushes. The thrushes are birds of heavy cover and their coloration is very cryptic being brownish above and dull below with spotted breasts. The Hermit Thrush is about half the size of a robin. There are at least three races of Hermit Thrushes with the eastern birds being reddish brown above as opposed to a grayish brown color for the two western races. All have reddish tails and bright brown spots on their throats and upper breasts. All have conspicuous white eye rings.

By comparison, Wood Thrushes are slightly larger than Hermit Thrushes. They have bright reddish brown backs as well as extensive black spotting on a white throat and breast.

All thrushes forage in the leaf litter on the forest floor. Hermit Thrushes will sometime rustle leaves with their feet to locate hidden insects, worms, etc. This is called "foot quivering". During the winter, they will supplement their diets with fruits and berries.

Birders have always attracted song birds by making pishing sounds and smaking sounds. Recordings of screech-owl calls will often attract nearby songbirds. Hermit Thrushes can usually be noticed by their chupping calls. When they come into view, they will typically hold their wings close to their bodies and flutter them. This seems to be a nervous reaction to the disturbance.

We encounter several thrushes in addition to Hermit and Wood thrushes in our region. These include Gray-cheeked and Swainson's thrushes and the Veery. These birds pass south during fall migration and north during spring migration. The Hermit Thrush is the only species that winters in good numbers in the continental USA.

The Hermit Thrush is Vermont's state bird. The poet Walt Whitman referred to Hermit Thrushes in his poem "When Lilacs Last in The Dooryard Bloom'd" which was his tribute to Abraham Lincoln when the president was assassinated.

Jay V. Huner
Louisiana Ecrevisse
428 Hickory Hill Drive
Boyce, LA 71409
318 793-5529