The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, June 8, 2007


Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus)

photo by Steve Nanz
I've often wondered how Thoreau, following other early naturalists, seemed not to distinguish between singing Hermit and Wood Thrushes, believing that the Wood Thrush sang both songs. Although the Wood Thrush has a beautiful song (see Biodiversity Corner, of June 27, 2003), it is quite different from the Hermit Thrush's own "ethereal bell-like cadences of great beauty" (Richard Pough). The song consists of three or more different phrases, each usually beginning with a long note followed by twirls and tremolos, including one very high phrase that disappears into inaudibility.

Hermit Thrushes, slightly smaller than Wood Thrushes, have less bold breast spots (the species name, guttatus, means "spotted") and a rust-red tail contrasting with a plain brown back. They slowly raise their tails when sitting, especially when alarmed. No other thrush does this. The alarm call is a distinctive "chuck" note. They also have a strange, raspy, breeding call and a one-note whistle call.

The Hermit Thrush I saw in our small woods off Concord St. on April 20th may have been a migrant on the way north. In Massachusetts, they are common in deep woodlands with conifers (pine and hemlock), but need at least 30 to 50 acres of woods for breeding. The best places in Carlisle to hear them are the Estabrook Woods and the state park (I heard one singing near dusk in May at the end of Woodbine Rd.)

The female builds her nest on or near the ground out of moss, plant fibers, leaves, and rootlets. We once found a Hermit Thrush nest containing four blue-green eggs next to a trail in the White Mountains, N.H.

Hermit Thrushes eat insects, spiders, and snails, but also fruit, especially in autumn. Our excuse for not clearing the burning bush on our property is that Hermit and other thrushes love the berries in October. When we do get rid of our invasives we will replant with native fruiting shrubs such as winterberry and viburnums. Berries of yew and flowering dogwood are also popular with thrushes.

April and October are migration times for Hermit Thrushes traveling short distances to wintering grounds in the U.S.

A few have appeared on Carlisle Christmas Counts. If a Hermit Thrush comes to your feeding station in winter, try scattering plain suet bits, moistened dried cherries or cranberries, or even live mealworms on the ground near your feeder.

References: Thoreau on Birds (ed. Francis H. Allen); Audubon Bird Guide to Small Land Birds by Richard H. Pough; Stokes Field Guide to Birds, Eastern Region; The Sibley Guide to Birds. Also, special thanks to Steve Nanz for the use of his Hermit Thrush photo. He has many excellent nature photos on his web site at

2007 The Carlisle Mosquito