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Winter song in the high desert

It’s November, and the sweet notes filter through the junipers. The rich song is drawn out, a complete serenade. The pure tones and complex song are reminiscent of the song of a hermit thrush or maybe a robin, but the singer remains hidden on the frosty morning.

It’s November. The time for full-throated song for most birds ended sometime in July. Robins and juncos may sing a few whisper songs at this time, but their songs feel more like a wish for far off spring than anything else.

Who is this singer, and why now? The quality of the song is a clue. The bird is a thrush but a rather unusual thrush. The Townsend’s solitaire is gray and slim and about the size of a small robin. The long tail is bordered in white, and there is a distinctive salmon-colored stripe in the wing. The bill is small, and a narrow white ring surrounds the eye.

Solitaires occur throughout the conifer forests of Jackson County up to timberline, but it is never common. It is not often seen, but in spring, the song can be heard from nearly every forested hillside. The song carries great distances but does not command attention. I didn’t realize just how widespread this bird was in the Siskiyous and the Cascades until I began using new recorders in my research that record sounds 24/7. In places in the Cascades their song is the most common song, with more than 1,000 performances given over a two-week period by just one male.

During the breeding season, they feed on flying insects. They perch quietly and then dash out from a low perch in the forest understory more like a flycatcher than a thrush. The nest is typically placed on a small ledge, often among the root tangle of a windthrown tree.

This brings us to the unusual singing on a brisk November morning. During the nonbreeding season, a great many solitaires head for the juniper woodland of the high desert, where they establish territories. Relatively few birds are territorial in winter, and even fewer sing to advertise ownership.

Like many thrushes, they love to dine on fruit, but not just any fruit. They feed upon the cones of the juniper. Unlike the woody cones of a Ponderosa pine or a Douglas-fir or almost any other conifer, the bracts of a juniper cone are fleshy and edible. In a sense the cones are a fruit. They are eye-catching blue and contain sugars, and it is the “hope” of the tree, like other fruiting plants, that animals will consume the “berries,” carrying the seeds to a distant place where they will be deposited. In some parts of the world, the berries of some species of junipers are sweet enough that they are harvested for food by people, including some Native Americans. And, of course, they provide the flavoring for gin.

If a solitaire hopes to survive the cold high desert winter until warming weather brings a new crop of insects, they must protect the winter crop of fruit. Their singing is their proclamation of ownership of several acres of junipers and all the berries they contain. If you wish to hear birdsong in the gray days of winter, head for the high desert.

Stewart Janes is a Biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at janes@sou.edu.

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