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Solitaires stay around and stake out territories all winter

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The first Townsend’s solitaire that I ever saw was shortly after we moved to Colorado in April 1965. I was looking around our new yard and saw a strange gray bird just across the road, clinging to a giant mullein stalk in the open valley above Little Cub Creek. I watched it digging insects out of the dead mullein stalk and thought how often I had seen downy woodpeckers acting in the same manner.

This, however, was not a downy woodpecker. I knew it was not a bird I had ever seen before. It then flew out from the old stalk and caught a passing insect in midair like a flycatcher. It didn’t seem to have any other flycatcher characteristics, and its brief flight had displayed large pale peach-buff colored patches in the wings. I watched a little longer and noted it had white feathers along the sides of the tail like a junco and a light eye ring. A quick look at Roger Tory Peterson’s “Field Guide to Western Birds” and I knew I had just seen my first Townsend’s solitaire.

Solitaires of the genus Myadestes are members of the thrush family as their speckled young testify, although their young birds are speckled all over, not just on their breasts as most young thrushes are. Solitaires perch in a very upright posture, which makes them greatly resemble a female mountain bluebird. However, their tail is longer, and they do not show even a touch of blue.

There are not many species in the Myadestes genus, only one in our country and another in Mexico. Like many of the thrush family, they are fine singers. They have a long warbling song that is compared with that of the American robin in volume and the rhythm of a Cassin’s finch. It is difficult to describe the sound of a bird in words, but I never heard a solitaire that sounded that loud. But then, my hearing isn’t all that great. Aside from their lovely song, which is often heard in winter, they have a call note that is repeated endlessly on hot summer days and sounds much like the single hoot of the northern pygmy owl. We had a nesting pair near us for several years and when working in my garden, it used to bother me to hear that endless repeated “who … who … who” at regularly repeated intervals hours on end. I always thought that this call note was his way of communicating with his mate, who was sitting on eggs somewhere nearby. It seemed to be his way of saying, “I’m still here, but it’s too hot to move. When it cools off a bit, I’ll bring you some food.”

Solitaires, as the name indicates, are very solitary birds during most of the spring and summer. You seldom see more than one at a time but during fall, they often migrate in groups and spend the winter months in areas where the Rocky Mountain cedar trees have an abundant crop of blueberries.

Solitaires nest in the western mountains from the pine forests of the foothills to above timberline. They migrate down the mountain in the fall to find cedar “berries” for winter food or sometimes continue south into Mexico. They are one of the few birds that establish a winter territory. Because the blue “berries” of the Rocky Mountain cedar are essential to their winter survival, they claim such areas where this native fruit is abundant as their territory and try to chase away all other birds, even to the extent of trying to chase away their own mirror image when they see themselves in a window.

When spring comes, they move back up the mountains to place their nests in odd places such as cavities in roadside banks where a stone has fallen out, overturned tree roots, cavities in or between large boulders or in rock outcroppings, and often in newly dug cellar walls before they are completed. Many a house is delayed in construction when the contractor finds a solitaire nest in the foundation wall and stops work until the young are fledged.

Solitaires range from mid-Alaska south into Mexico. They are a bird of the western mountains and can survive surprisingly cold weather as long as they have a good supply of cedar “berries” to eat. They are largely responsible for the reseeding of the cedar forests. The blue cedar “juniper” berries pass through the solitaire’s digestive system, supplying the birds with the nutrition they need without injury to the seed within, which usually germinates and grows wherever it is deposited by the bird.