Varied Thrush (Ixoreus naevius): Barry Kent MacKay

Although I don’t keep a “list” of bird species seen, what birders call a “life list”, I’m extremely thrilled with each encounter with a new species, especially if it is where it belongs, in its own habitat (as opposed to “strays” and “accidentals”, far from where they naturally occur).  But as the numbers of species seen, once I started to travel, reached higher numbers I often forgot first sightings.  However, I’ll never forget my first Varied Thrushes, seen in Penticton, British Columbia, in late December, 1964.  Due to personal problems my mother and I had just moved into an apartment in Toronto, had no money and yet I was burning with the urge to travel.  We had befriended the Strong family, Howard, Peggy and daughter Louise, my age, who lived one floor above us.  Peggy’s family was from Penticton, and they were going home, by train, for Christmas, and would my mother and I like to join them?  Costs would be minimal.  It was my first trip out of province since I had been very young, and one of the most wonderful journeys I ever made, as we crossed Canada, by train,  in the dead of winter.  The last stage of the journey was by car, Howard driving.  We arrived late at night amid a blizzard, and there was a Great Horned Owl perched on the sign welcoming us to Penticton.  The next morning before dawn I was out behind the motel where we stayed, and there, in the bushes, I met my first ever Varied Thrush, in the same binocular field as my first “red-shafted” flickers and “Oregon” juncos, both then considered to be separate species.  It was one of the great thrills of my then young life.

But it has taken me until now to actually paint a Varied Thrush, in oils, on a wooden panel. The species is found throughout much of western North America, but almost every winter some move east, into Ontario, to the delight of local birders.   Now that I’ve done much more travel I think of Varied Thrushes as having an “Asian” look, somewhat resembling Asian thrushes of similar size, but certainly it has diverged a long way from any common ancestry, being very distinctive, so distinctive as to be the sole species in the genus, Ixoreus, derived from the ancient Greek word for mistletoe, “ixos”.  A popular colloquial name for them used to be “painted robin”.  

The “orange” colour of the breast is really a sort of burnt-orange, almost unique among birds, subtly different from somewhat similar shades of orange in other species, at least in my experience. I’ve shown a male in winter plumage.  The female is similar, but not quite so boldly patterned. They weigh around 80 grams, and are roughly the size of an American Robin (Turdus migratorius) or European Blackbird (T. merula) but stockier, with a relatively shorter looking tail.

They lay two to five eggs (usually three or four) that are pale blue, lightly spotted and dotted with brown. While both parents feed the young, only the female incubates the eggs, which takes about two weeks.  The species breeds in dense, evergreen forests from Alaska to California, and is somewhat migratory, although usually altitudinally, descending from higher elevations in winter, as had the birds I saw in Penticton, now so long ago.  They mostly eat insects and other invertebrates although becoming dependent on fruits and berries in winter. 

Barry Kent MacKay

Bird Artist, Illustrator

Studio: (905) 472 9731

31 Colonel Butler Drive

Markham, ON L3P 6B6 Canada

Stay safe and keep others that way by social isolation


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