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Swainson's Thrush
Catharus ustulatus

The Swainson's Thrush is a shy ground-foraging songbird that is present in Tennessee only as a migrant. It frequents moist woodlands and during the non-breeding season you are more likely to hear its call note, which sounds like a drop of water, than its ethereal flute-like song. The Swainson's Thrush primarily breeds in coniferous woods across northern North America, with a small disjunct population in West Virginia and on Mt. Rogers in Virginia. It winters mainly in Mexico and northern South America.

Description: The Swainson's Thrush is uniformly olive-brown above with a buffy face and an obvious buffy eye-ring, appearing to form "spectacles." It is pale below with dark spots on a buffy breast. The male and female look alike.
Length: 7"
Wingspan: 12"
Weight: 1.1 oz

Voice: The song is an upward spiral of flute-like notes, and its call note sounds like a drop of water whoit.

Similar Species:

  • Hermit Thrushes have a thinner whitish, not buffy, eye-ring and a rusty colored tail that contrasts with its brown back.
  • The Veery has a warm reddish brown back, an indistinct eye-ring, and indistinct reddish brown chest spots.
  • Wood Thrushes have an orange-brown back, and bold black spots below.
  • Gray-cheeked Thrushes have a grayish-brown back, lack an eye-ring, and are more heavily spotted in the upper breast than other thrushes.

Habitat: Swainson's Thrushes breed primarily in coniferous forests, especially spruce and fir. They winter in mature tropical and secondary forest.

Diet: A variety of insects and berries.

Nesting and reproduction: While there are breeding records for the Swainson's Thrush on Mount Rogers in Virginia, there are no known nesting records in Tennessee.

Status in Tennessee: The Swainson's Thrush is a fairly common migrant across the state. In spring it can be present from late April to late May and from early September to mid-October in the fall.

Dynamic map of Swainson's Thrush eBird observations in Tennessee

Fun Facts:

  • The Swainson's Thrush was named in honor of the early 19th century British ornithologist William Swainson (1789-1855).
  • The oldest known Swainson's Thrush in the wild was 12 years one month old.

Obsolete English Names: Alma's thrasher, olive-backed thrush, russet-backed thrush

Best places to see in Tennessee: Swainson's Thrushes are somewhat more numerous during spring migration than in the fall. Between late April and late May, they might be encountered in any large wooded area.

For more information:


Mack, D. E., and W. Yong. 2000. Swainson's Thrush (Catharus ustulatus). In The Birds of North America, No. 540 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.

Nicholson, C. P. 1997. Atlas of Breeding Birds of Tennessee. Univ. of Tennessee Press, Knoxville.

Robinson J. C. 1990. An Annotated Checklist of the Birds of Tennessee. Univ. of Tennessee Press, Knoxville.

Sibley, D. A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. A. A. Knopf, New York, NY.