Bird Notes: The Hermit Thrush

Below are some photos of our little friend the little Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) that we had the pleasure of encountering at Mason Farms Biological Reserve in Chapel Hill, North Carolina — as well as some notes about Hermit Thrushes in general (because who doesn’t want to learn more about Hermit Thrushes?). This particular thrush was hanging out with (or near) a mixed winter flock of bluebirds and sparrows at an edge between pine forest and prairie.

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A good view of its reddish tail, a feature that sets it apart from its similar-looking thrush cousins:

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Okay… now for some “notes!”

The hermit thrush can be encountered in the understory of forests and swamps where forages for bugs in the leaf litter. For the most part, they are pretty “unassuming,” brown little birds whose appearance doesn’t generally attract much attention. (Once you hear them sing, however… more on that later.)

John James Audubon provides a straightforward description of its behavior in Ornithological Biographies, Volume 1:

“The Hermit Thrush has no song, and only utters a soft plaintive note, seldom heart at a greater distance than twenty-five or thirty yards. It is more frequently seen on the ground, where it hops with the same movements employed by the well-known little Red-breast of Europe in other words, before it hops its breast almost comes in contact with the ground, the tail is a little raised, the wings droppep, and after hopping, it runs a few steps, erects its head, and looks around.” 

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As you can see, the hermit thrush is a plump little forest songbird — and although it is inarguably as cute as a button, this species is probably best known for its haunting, ethereal melody that cannot (easily) be described in words (if you’re curious about what it sounds like, go here to listen).

I was curious to see how and if the song has ever been appropriately described — and I was delighted to find the paragraph which included sentiments along the lines of, “there are no words”. Of its song, Reverend J.H. Langille ( in “Our Birds and their Haunts”, 1884), writes:

“The song begins with a note not unlike the vowel O, passing through several intervals of the musical scale in a smooth, upward slide, and in a tone of indescribable melodiousness, and continues in a shake which gradually softens into silence, thus giving a most pleasing diminuendo. Put into syllabus, it is well represented by Mr. Burrough’s phrase, “O-o-o-o, holy-holy-holy holy’: and I sometimes thought I heard it say, O-o-o-o- seraph, seraph, seraph, seraph. Again I could discover no suggestion of articulate language, but only that soul-language of pure melody, which speaks directly to the heart without the greater encumbrance of speech.  … The tone of the melody is neither of flute, nor hautboy nor vox-humana, but something of inimitable sweetness, and never heard away from the fragrant arcades of the forest. ‘Spiritual serenity’, or a refined, poetic, religious devotion, is indeed the sentiment of the song. He whose troubled spirit cannot be smoothed or comforted, or whose religious feelings cannot be awakened by this song, in twilight, must lack the full sense of hearing, or that inner sense of the soul which catches nature’s most significant voices.”

The bolded quote is actually something a friend and I have discussed quite a bit — how describing bird songs with words (for example, the Carolina wren’s “tea-kettle, tea-kettle-teakettle”) can inadvertently lead people to hearing only those words as opposed to hearing the rich, beautiful and complex song that it actually is. Such descriptive words can be used as aid when learning IDs, but should be used sparingly and with caution. Tone and quality are just as important (if not more important) when IDing anyway; both because (1) people hear different words, and (2) the “words” bird say change from place to place (e.g., a Michigan wren may sing “tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle” but a DC wren may sing “teacher-teacher-teacher”). Tone and quality usually don’t change, however.

Also, emphasizing the importance of really listening the the song just seems like a good thing to do. While words can be helpful tools, they certainly do not add anything the beauty of complexity that can only be learned and appreciated by really listening. It is really impossible to describe such beautiful and ethereal sounds with human words.

I remember once, a few years ago, being stunned by a birdsong while on a walk through a local natural area. What I heard were bright and cheerful notes that rang across the air; I was practically struck dumb by the clarity and steadiness of the song. I *knew* that I had heard this bird before, but could not bring myself to recall the species immediately; I felt a little paralyzed with pure enchantment. What it was, I realized after a few moments, was a “common” Northern Cardinal. In those few moments where I could not recall its name, however, it felt anything but common; those bright, light, heavenly notes seemed to pierce the darkness of the entire forest and immediately lit up my spirit. The song, although simple and “common”, felt utterly wonderful and mysterious for those few moments, which seemed to last forever. I would have definitely missed out on something special if I had been trained to hear nothing other than “peer, peer, peer.”

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By the way… Why is the Hermit Thrush called the Hermit Thrush? If you know me, you know that I love looking for explanations in nearly century-old serial publications available for free in online library archives.  I found the following explanation in the publication, “Birds and Nature Magazine” (1905):

From its retiring habits the Hermit Thrush is more rarely seen than the other members of the thrush family, as the wood thrush and Wilson’s thrush, and for this reason it has received its name of “Hermit.”

According to the article, the Hermit Thrush has other names, too:

It is known under a variety of names, the more noteworthy being Ground Swamp Robin, Swamp Angel, Ground Gleaner, Tree Topper, and Seed Sower. 

The Hermit Thrush is also the state bird of Vermont.

Here’s one more cool fact about thrushes (well, cool to me, anyway). According to Cornell’s All About Birds, in mountain environments where Catharus thrushes occur together (such as in the mountains in the northeastern US), Veery live at the lowest elevations, Hermit thrushes live at middle elevations, and Swainson’s thrush at the highest elevations.

I wonder if this is an example or effect of “altitudinal zonation“. This would essentially allow three very similar kinds of thrushes to live together in a relatively small spatial area (e.g., if each species was adapted to the different climates that occur at different elevations)… That is something I’d be interested in learning more about.

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I’ll end the post with a video from one of my favorite websites for animal songs:

That’s all for now — I hope you enjoyed the pictures and learned something new or interesting about the Hermit Thrush today.

Good night!

For more information about bird song, check out: The Singing Life of Birds

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