The Varied Thrush: Voice of the Northwest

Learn everything you need to know about the colorful varied thrush that is known for its dramatic beauty and haunting call.

Here’s how to identify the remarkable varied thrush and how to attract these beautiful birds to your yard.

What Does a Varied Thrush Look Like?

About the size and shape of the American robin, the varied thrush sports a bold black band that resembles a necklace on its rich orange breast that contrasts with a blue-gray back, orange wing bars and a wide black stripe across its eye. The females look similar but paler.

Seeing this species is a treat, since varied thrushes are “not the kind of bird to sit out in the open,” says Maeve Sowles, president of the Lane County Audubon Society in Oregon. “You hear them more than you see them.”

It may be difficult to tell female or juvenile varied thrush apart from robins since they share similar coloring and size. You’ll know it’s a varied thrush if there are stripes on the chest and wings.

Here’s how to attract more robins to your yard.

Varied Thrush Range

Male Varied ThrushCourtesy Sally Harris

These particular thrushes live year-round in the wet forests of the mild Pacific Coast—all the way from southeastern Alaska to Northern California. Farther inland and north they are migratory, nesting in forests from Alaska to the mountains of Montana. They retreat southward and to lower elevations in autumn, when they often visit backyards and city parks.

This species is known for being a notorious wanderer outside of breeding season. It’s been sighted in every state of the Lower 48, often foraging in the midst of a flock of robins. Look closely and you, too, may spot this beauty. Check out more western birds and their eastern counterparts.

Varied Thrush Call

Just like the first robin of spring, “the first report of a varied thrush in fall gets a lot of excitement!” Maeve says. She recommends opening a window on an autumn morning and listening for a very haunting yet distinct call.

The varied thrush sings a single drawn-out note, then pauses, then another note comes, and so on. “Each note grows out of nothing, swells to a full tone, and then fades away to nothing until one is carried away with the mysterious song,” ornithologist and bird artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes said in a handbook more than a hundred years ago.

Next, learn what a cardinal’s call sounds like.

What Do Varied Thrushes Eat?

Look for these ground feeders under trees and shrubs. They often scratching aggressively in leaf litter for beetles, sowbugs, snails, worms and other morsels. “In fall and winter, they eat fruit and berries from trees and bushes,” Maeve says. “This includes crabapples, native salal, thimbleberry, cascara, snowberry and others—well, for as long as they last.”

To attract varied thrushes to your yard, scatter birdseed mix on the ground and offer suet in a wire cage. Try one of our homemade suet recipes for birds. “Varied thrushes stay all winter,” Maeve says, “even in snow and ice storms. We don’t have cardinals, but a varied thrush in snow is just as impressive!”

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Sally Roth
Sally Roth is an award-winning author of more than 20 popular books about gardening, nature, and birds, including the best-selling Backyard Bird Feeder's Bible. Roth is also a contributing editor for Birds & Blooms magazine. She and her husband share their home in the high Rockies with a variety of animals.