A seldom noticed and often overlooked western bird species is the Townsend’s solitaire.
This rather large bird is 8.5 inches long with a gray body, buffy wing patch, a short, thin, dark beak and a noticeable white eye ring.
It was named by the famous bird artist, John James Audubon after John Kirk Townsend, who in 1835 captured this species in Oregon. The solitaire is a member of the thrush family of birds which includes the American robin, Western bluebird and a variety of other thrushes found throughout the west.
The thrush family of birds are known for their beautiful songs. The Townsend’s solitaire is mainly identified by a clear, single whistle call it makes in winter.
The Townsend’s solitaire prefers open forests and woodland edges. In the summer months it is most commonly found in pine tree forests from 1,100 feet to 11,500 feet in elevation. The solitaire’s nesting range extends from New Mexico to as far north as Alaska.
During the summer nesting season the Townsend’s solitaire hunts for insects as it perches on the top of a tree and flies out to snag insects in midair. Solitaires depend on a steady supply of insects such as butterflies, spiders and moths to feed their young.
The male solitaire establishes a nesting territory by singing from treetops as high as 300 feet and slowly circling downward while singing to lure in a female.
The female chooses the nest site and builds the nest which can be on the ground using dirt, grasses and pine needles.
Unlike many other birds a male solitaire does not stop singing in spring after mating season and will often continue to sing throughout the year to set and hold its winter territory.
In the winter months, as insect populations decline, the solitaire’s diet shifts to berries, including, juniper, hackberry, currants and other available fruits. The solitaire often migrates a very short distance to lower elevations in search of these foods.
One study showed that a Townsend’s solitaire would need to eat between 42,000 to 84,000 juniper berries to survive winter. I have planted a variety of native berry producing shrubs and trees in my Albuquerque backyard to help lure the solitaire and other winter berry eating species.
I often spot Townsend’s solitaires in the foothills around Albuquerque and the Santa Fe area in the winter months. Be sure to listen for the unique call of the solitaire when hiking in juniper forests throughout New Mexico.
Mary Schmauss is the owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Albuquerque. A lifelong birder and author of “For the Birds: A Month-by-Month Guide to Attracting Birds to your Backyard.”