Swainson’s Thrush

Catharus ustulatus
Range Map

Once was a time when we called the Swainson’s Thrush by the moniker Olive-Backed Thrush. These shy birds breed in coniferous woods with dense undergrowth, across Canada, Alaska and the northern United States, but also in deciduous wooded areas on the Pacific coast of North America. These birds spend winters in Mexico, Central and South America.

Thrushes in the genus catharus are more difficult to distinguish than some other genera. This is especially true of the Hermit, Gray-Cheeked and the Swainson’s Thrushes. If seen in the shadows, where these birds often spend time, the subtle variations are hard to pick up. One distinguishing feature that sets the Swainson’s Thrush apart from the others is the appearance of so-called “spectacles” that their eye-ring and patch between the eye and the bill make.

Science recognizes six subspecies of Swainson’s Thrush. These are split into two groups: the “Russet-Backed” and the “Olive-Backed”:

  • In the Russet group are three subspecies.
    • C. u. ustulatus breeds in southeast Alaska to northern California and east to northern New Mexico, and winters from Mexico to Panama.
    • C. u. oedicus breeds in northern California west of the Cascade and Sierra-Nevada mountains, and south to southern California. They spend winter in western Mexico and possibly in Central America.
    • C. u. phillipsi breeds in British Columbia on Queen Charlotte Island and spends winters in Mexico.
  • Olive-Backed group also has three members:
    • C. u. swainsoni breeds in the northern forest of Canada from British Columbia to Nova Scotia and in the northern tier of the USA. These birds winter in northern and central South America, south to Argentina.
    • C. u. incanus breeds in Alaska, the Yukon Territory, British Columbia and Alberta. These birds winter in South America (Colombia, Venezuela, and Peru).
    • C. u. appalachiensis breeds in the northern Appalachian range from New Hampshire and south. This group winters in South America (Colombia and Peru).

The first time I met a Swainson’s Thrush was while driving through the Yukon Territory (Canada) on my way to Alaska in 2005. My second meeting was only a month later, as I was winding up my Alaskan adventure while I visited Hyder in southeastern Alaska. Years later, I was pleased to catch them eating pyracantha berries in my southern California yard, but I wasn’t quick enough to capture any images. Then in 2020, and again in 2021, I enjoyed gathering images while in their company on Texas’ South Padre Island. In 2022, I journeyed extensively through western Canada, and met them frequently in British Columbia.

28 Photos

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