Tips for Identifying Townsend Solitaire

Townsend’s Solitaire, adult. December in Los Alamos County, New Mexico. Photo by Brian E. Small

I was 11, an avid birdwatcher, eager to find everything I could. On a cold December morning, I walked into a grove of evergreens in a Kansas park a few miles from my parents’ house. Despite my research, I could only find one bird in this lonely but beautiful grove: a Townsend’s Solitaire.

The name “solitary” is singularly appropriate. While other species of thrushes often form flocks (and flocks of robins or bluebirds can be very large), solitaries rarely congregate in groups of any kind. In fact, their aggressively solitary nature is noticeable in all seasons, and it is one of the best-studied aspects of their behavior.

On their normal winter range in the West, the overwhelming majority of Townsend’s Solitaires spend the season in juniper woods. There, each individual establishes and defends a winter territory. It will actively hunt other solitaries that attempt to encroach, and will at least attempt to hunt other species, such as robins or bluebirds, when they enter the territory. The reason? Juniper berries. These fruits (which are technically small fleshy cones, but even botanists usually call them berries for convenience) make up more than 90% of the winter diet of solitaries in many areas.

Detailed studies in Arizona, California, and elsewhere have documented how solitaires establish their territories in the fall and defend them through winter. Territories vary in size; adults hold larger and more productive areas than first-winter birds. When the berry harvest is poor, territories tend to be larger, supporting more trees and more berries. When an individual temporarily leaves its territory—for example, to fly to a distant water source—it tends to fly high above the ground, perhaps to avoid encroaching on other territories and initiating fights with other solitaries.


Because they defend their territories as strongly in winter as they do during breeding season, Townsend’s Solitaires can sing year-round, with song peaks as they establish territories in spring and fall. Males and females sing a continuous, mixed series of rich whistles and short trills. However, their most common vocalization in winter is a single clear bell-shaped note. The loner often gives this note from the top of a tall tree, and like the song, it probably serves a territorial defense function.

Solitaries move south from Alaska and northwestern Canada in the fall, and some do well in the Great Plains. Some go further east; each year scattered individuals are found in states and provinces around the Great Lakes and east of the Atlantic coast. To actively search for such vagrants, check areas well-stocked with berries. A grove of western redcedar—which, despite its name, is a type of juniper—could harbor a Townsend’s Solitaire wintering away from its normal range.

What to look for

The size and the shape. Medium-sized songbird with a short beak, small head, slender body and fairly long tail.


General color. Very plain grey. A bold white eyering is the only obvious mark.

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Wing model. A broad buff band is most evident on the underwing, usually hidden when at rest.

Tail pattern. Blackish-grey, with white on the outermost feathers.

Variants. Male and female look alike all year round. Juvenile plumage, borne briefly in summer, is very dark with buff markings and scales.

Townsend's solitaire, adult.  March in Jeff Davis County, Texas.  Photo by Brian E. SmallTownsend’s solitaire, adult. March in Jeff Davis County, Texas. Photo by Brian E. Small

At first glance, Townsend’s Solitaire can be confusing because it doesn’t seem to fit any group; it is a member of the thrush family, but that is not apparent from its shape and behavior. Its upright posture and dull color might suggest a flycatcher, but no North American member of the flycatcher family has such a small beak. The solitaire shows few obvious field markings, apart from the noticeable white eyering. If the bird is flying, its buff wing patch and white outer feathers will help confirm identity. Some adults have more extensive buff markings on the wings, which may even be visible when the bird is perched, but most look more like the one in this photo.

Mockingbird, adult.  April in Galveston County, Texas.  Photo by Brian E. SmallMockingbird, adult. April in Galveston County, Texas. Photo by Brian E. Small

Superficially, the Northern Mockingbird resembles the Townsend’s Solitaire: slender, gray, with a pale patch on the wing and white on the outer tail feathers. The mockingbird is larger and often more active, and it often forages on the ground, which the solitary rarely does. The mockingbird typically lives further south or at lower elevations than the juniper/pinyon pine woods of the foothills, where the solitaire is prevalent in winter. However, a solitaire out of its typical habitat might be mistaken for a mockingbird at first. Note the mockingbird’s paler underparts, longer beak, larger white patch in the wing, and different face pattern, with a dark line through the eye instead of a white eye-ring.

Townsend's solitaire, adult.  March in Jeff Davis County, Texas.  Photo by Brian E. SmallTownsend’s solitaire, adult. March in Jeff Davis County, Texas. Photo by Brian E. Small

Few songbirds are as uniformly and uniformly gray as the adult Townsend’s Solitaire. The color may appear to vary from bluish-grey to a more brownish dusty gray, depending on the lighting and the freshness of the plumage. Males and females look identical, and females sing the same rich, varied, confused song as males at all times of the year, sometimes even in mid-winter. Most often, however, wintering birds are detected by their unique, clear, chiming callnote. A few Townsend Solitaires wander east each year in late fall and winter; although they are very rare in the Southeast, they could appear anywhere in the United States or Canada, so birders everywhere should be on the lookout for these subtle birds.

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Mountain Bluebird, non-breeding adult female.  Socorro Co., NM December 2005. Photo by Brian E. SmallMountain Bluebird, non-breeding adult female. Socorro Co., New Mexico
December 2005. Photo by Brian E. Small

The Mountain Bluebird and Townsend’s Solitaire have similar ranges and are often found in the same habitats, especially in winter. Like the solitary, the mountain bluebird also frequently wanders far east in late fall or winter. The female of this species is the grayest of the bluebirds, and the combination of the general color and the conspicuous white eyering may suggest the solitary. However, the very long wings, with the wingtips extending more than halfway down the tail, give the mountain bluebird a rather different shape. It lacks the solitaire’s buff patch in the wing and the white in the outer tail feathers, and with good eyesight it will always show at least a tinge of blue in the wings.

Multiple solitaires

Among the thrushes north of the Mexican border, Townsend’s Solitaire may seem unique. But further south, from Mexico and the Caribbean to South America, there are seven other species of loners in the same genus, Myadestes. They are recognizable from Townsend’s in their general shape and demeanor, and all are outstanding singers, some with magnificent or even outstanding songs. Their fine vocal abilities have led to conservation issues for some as many individuals are captured and removed from the wild to be sold as cage birds in some Latin American countries.

In addition to the eight species found on the mainland and the Caribbean, the genus Myadestes includes five species in Hawaii. These birds do not look so obviously similar to familiar solitaries. The Omao on the Big Island of Hawaii, the only one I’ve seen, reminds me more of a Hermit Thrush in shape and behavior. His song, however, is a short, jerky series of rich notes, more like one of the tropical loners.


Considering that Townsend’s Solitaire is only a short-distance migrant and other members of the genus Myadestes known today are non-migratory, it seems odd that they share a common ancestor with a bird that managed to colonize Hawaii long ago. But we will never have a thorough knowledge of the Hawaiian representatives of the group because three of the five species are now probably or certainly extinct.

This article first appeared in the November/December 2020 issue of BirdWatching magazine.