It looks like this may be a good year for winter birds. There is a bumper crop of “berries” on the Rocky Mountain cedar trees in our area and a heavy yield of cones on the blue spruce and Douglas fir trees. Townsend’s solitaires have already moved into the area to feast on blue berries on cedar trees, and it is highly probable that crossbills will discover the spruce and Douglas fir crop before the winter is over.
Townsend’s solitaries have been increasing in the area since early October. These delightful birds are with us all year but in greater numbers in winters, when their food is abundant. In summer they are widely spread nesting birds throughout the Rocky Mountains. In winter they migrate into sheltered valleys and to lower elevations wherever they find the blue “berries” of the Rocky Mountain cedar trees to be abundant, even going out on the plains into western Kansas and Nebraska.
Solitaires are one of the few birds that defend a winter territory. In summer they are the solitary birds their name implies, spread out through the mountains from 7,000 to 10,000 feet, although there are a few records of their nesting at higher elevations. In winter, however, they tend to flock together into lower valleys and canyons to defend their food supply. This leads to their fighting and chasing other solitaires from the cedar trees that they consider “ their” territory.
I have had several phone calls over the past few weeks from folks asking about little gray birds that were “attacking their house” or “flying into their windows.” They are aggressive solitaires that are fighting to preserve their winter food supply. Since Rocky Mountain cedar is a native and therefore easily grown in this area, many of them have been planted in new subdivisions. If these trees are planted near a house, the birds see their own reflection in the windows and think they are seeing another solitaire competing for their food. They attack any other solitaire that moves into their territory, even if it is only their own reflection. There is almost constant bickering, fighting and chasing anywhere a flock gathers in the winter.
Solitaires are also one of the few birds that sing in winter. They have beautiful song and often can be heard singing on bright winter days. Usually perched at the top of a tree, the birds’ pleasant liquid song is a joy to hear on a cold day. As spring approaches, they sing more and often sing courtship songs on the wing high above the treetops. Their lovely song and neat gray suit, white eye ring and outer tail feathers and their flashing buff wing patches all give them a neat, tailored appearance, but their ladies are rather messy homemakers. They build a large, sloppy nest that spills all over the cut bank or rock cliff on which they build. The inner cup is sturdy and well built, but they seem to spill nesting material all over the place, and there is always a long tail of material leading to the nest. They nest fairly low, on a cut bank beneath overhanging grass or other plant material or in shallow cavities in rock outcroppings. They are therefore very prone to predation. With the overabundance of foxes, fox squirrels and feral cats in this area, Townsend’s solitaires have declined in recent years, probably largely due to nest predation. As soon as nesting ends, their song all but ceases, and during the hot summer months all you hear is their incessant call note. On a muggy August afternoon they will sit on the top of a ponderosa pine and call repeatedly, sounding much like the monotonous calling of the northern pygmy owl, a softly whistled “who-o” that is repeated at regular intervals.
The Townsend’s solitaire was first collected for science along the Columbia River by J.K. Townsend and was named to honor him. They are birds of the Rocky Mountains that range only in the mountains from central eastern Alaska to southern California, Arizona and New Mexico. They are members of the thrush family, and the resemblance can be noted in their rich song, their speckled young and the way they perch much like a bluebird and then fly out to catch insects on the wing. Look for them wherever you see cedar or juniper berries and listen for their bubbling winter song.