If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.
That great old expression doesn’t work for thrushes because a lot of birds look like thrushes but aren’t thrushes at all. So you can’t say: If it looks like a thrush, then it probably is a thrush.
Members of the thrush family in New England include wood thrush, hermit thrush, veery, Swainson’s thrush and Bicknell’s thrush. They are medium-sized birds, brown overall and their buff-colored bellies and chests are decorated with brown spots. American robins and Eastern bluebirds are thrushes as well but have their own distinctive appearances.
Thrushes are perhaps best known for their songs. Wood and hermit thrushes have amazing flute-like songs that sound otherworldly and have inspired many a line in poetry and literature.
“This is the only bird whose note affects me like music, affects the flow and tenor of my thought, my fancy and imagination. It lifts and exhilarates me.” Henry David Thoreau wrote that after coming across a wood thrush.
The veery also has an interesting song that, to me anyway, sounds like the old Space Invaders video game from the 1980s.
The wood thrush, hermit thrush and veery are the most common thrushes in New England (in addition to robins and bluebirds). Bicknell’s and Swainson’s thrushes have the classic thrush appearance but are seen far less frequently.
Then there are the lookalikes that aren’t thrushes are all. Take the ovenbird for instance. It is a bit smaller than the thrushes, but otherwise is a spitting image of a thrush with a brown body overall and brown spots on its buff chest and belly. It also sports an orange stripe on its head, which is a deviation from the classic thrush look.
Ovenbirds are perhaps best known for their “teacher, teacher, teacher” song that echoes throughout the New England woods in spring and summer. They are members of the warbler family, even though they are very unwarbler-like in many ways, including appearance. They also spend most of their time on the ground looking for food and even build their oven-like nests on the forest floor.
Northern waterthrush and Louisiana waterthrush are two more warblers that far more resemble thrushes. They have brown bodies and spotted bellies and chests. They could easily be identified as thrushes in a lineup. They even spend most of their time on the ground like thrushes, especially near water. But, like the ovenbird, they are indeed warblers.
Even the brown thrasher may sometimes be confused with a thrush. Thrashers have the brown bodies and spotted chests but are bigger and have a more athletic look to them. Thrashers are members of the mimid family along with mockingbirds and catbirds.
The thrush family is a fascinating one to see and hear in the New England woods, but be aware of the many lookalikes when making an identification.
I received an email recently from a gentleman who remembers hearing the wood thrush years ago while walking with his grandmother. He hasn’t heard the song in years and worries for the species. His concern is in line with reality. While there are still many wood thrushes in our woods, the species is in sharp decline.
Here is what the Cornell Lab of Ornithology writes about the wood thrush: “Wood Thrush are still common throughout the deciduous forests of eastern North America, but populations declined by approximately 1.3 percent per year for a cumulative decline of about 50 percent between 1966 and 2019, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey.”
Thrush or thrush lookalike, let’s do what we can to preserve all bird species.