Catharus ustulatus swainsoni including C. u. almae

Status: Common regular spring migrant statewide. Fairly common fall migrant statewide. Rare casual breeder Pine Ridge. Accidental in winter.

Documentation:  Specimens: almae: UNSM ZM6673, 23 May 1900 Monroe Canyon, Sioux Co; swainsoni: UNSM 11684, 8 May 1917 Lancaster Co.

Taxonomy:  There are six subspecies recognized, often separated into groups, “Russet-backed” and “Olive-backed”, which may prove to be sibling species (Phillips 1991). Western subspecies ustulatus, phillipsi, and oedicus comprise the Russet-backed Group, and incanus, swainsoni and appalachiensis comprise the Olive-backed Group (Mack and Yong 2020). Among the latter group, incanus breeds coastally in northcentral and eastern Alaska and western Canada, swainsoni breeds in central and eastern Canada and northern USA, and appalachiensis in the eastern USA (Mack and Yong 2020).

Virtually all of Nebraska’s migrant Swainson’s Thrushes are likely to be swainsoni, which is the most widespread of the Olive-backed Group (Phillips 1991). However, although we note here subspecies almae, the Rocky Mountains breeder (Obersolser 1898) based on the recommendation by Oberholser that birds reported in summer on the Pine Ridge (Cary 1902) be assigned to almae (Bruner et al 1904), although this form has since been merged with swainsoni (Mack and Yong 2020, Gill and Donsker 2017).  It has been suggested (Phillips 1991) that The Alaskan Olive-backed subspecies incanus may occur in Nebraska; it has been reported in northeast Illinois (AOU 1957) and migrates through at least western Oklahoma (Phillips 1991); separation from swainsoni is difficult; indeed, birds ascribed to almae by Oberholser may have been incanus (AOU 1957, Bruner et al 1904).

It is likely that individuals of the Russet-backed Group of Pacific coast subspecies ustulatus, a Pacific Northwest breeder, occur in Nebraska in low numbers as spring migrants. There are two Nebraska records, the first a single (among 43 identified as swainsoni) at Oliver Reservoir, Kimball Co 1 Jun 2019, described as “Rusty back at first recalling Veery but not as bright. Spotting on chest more restricted than on olive-backed and not as bold. Buff face blended into rust hues of head and buff wash on chest. Sides warm brown rather than olive-gray” (Steven Mlodinow, eBird.org). The second Nebraska record was of one photographed at Gering Cemetery, Scotts Bluff Co 15 May 2020 (eBird.org). There are several recent reports with photographs from extreme northeastern Colorado 6-30 May of Swainson’s Thrushes referable to the Russet-backed Group; essentially these are birds that have uniformly more rusty than buffy upperparts and buffy flanks (eBird.org, accessed Aug 2019). A purported specimen of ustulatus from as far east as southeast Iowa (AOU 1957) was re-identified as a Veery (Phillips 1991).

As stated by Phillips (1991) in his inimitable way, “Surely genera like Catharus are not for ornithologists less competent than Ridgway and Hellmayr, for over-eager listers, or for the shrill opponents of accuracy”.

Spring: Apr 21, 22, 23 <<<>>> Jun 2, 2, 3 (east, south), Apr 28, 28, 29 <<<>>> Jun 4, 5, 5 (north, west)

Earlier dates east and south are 17 Apr 2016 Sarpy Co, and 21 Apr 2012 Sarpy Co.

Later dates east and south are 6 Jun 2003 Chase Co, 19 Jun 1939 Lincoln Co (Tout 1947), 19 Jun 2008 Hamilton Co, and 19-22 Jun 2020 Lancaster Co.

Later dates north and west are 14 Jun 2019 Scotts Bluff Co, 16 Jun 2019 Sioux Co, and 17 Jun 2006 Cherry Co.

Most pass through in May. Departure in the south and east is complete by early Jun, but a little later in the north and west.

The earliest specimen date for Kansas is 24 Apr (Thompson et al 2011); Tallman et al (2002) noted that they are “not confident” of reports earlier than the last week of Apr. Most such reports are probably of Hermit Thrushes.

  • High counts:  499 in Sarpy Co 11 May 1996 (including 272 at Fontenelle Forest, Sarpy Co), 314 Night Flight Calls in Wayne Co 14 May 2021, 150 in Kimball Co 28 May 2011, and 148 in the Panhandle 15 May 2002.

A late fallout yielded 37 in the Panhandle 4 Jun 2005; 83 were at Oliver Reservoir, Kimball Co 21 May 2020 and 43 were there 1 Jun 2019.

Summer: The only documented breeding record is of a nest in West Ash Creek Canyon, Dawes Co 12 Aug 1973 (Rosche 1974).  This nest was located in deciduous riparian growth adjacent to ponderosa pines, and contained two eggs and an “advanced fledging” nestling on 12 Aug, but the nestling was gone and the two remaining eggs were cold on 15 Aug. The eggs are now specimen UNSM ZM17073.  As stated by Rosche (1974), there was no prior evidence for breeding, although it had been assumed based on Hudson’s collecting a female with enlarged ovaries 17 Jun 1938 in Squaw Canyon, Sioux Co (Hudson 1939).

Mollhoff (2001) found “several territorial males” in West Ash Canyon, Dawes Co, May, Jun, and Jul 1999, but no breeding evidence was found; no birds were there in 2000. In 2004 at least five singing males and two pairs were present 5 Jun, and a complete but empty nest was being guarded by a singing bird 8 Jun (Mollhoff 2005). In 2005 in the same area, singing birds were again present mid-Jun, but no nest was found (Mollhoff 2005). There are Jun and Jul reports from Sioux Co 1976-79, although no evidence of breeding was reported, as well as late Jun (but not Jul) reports for the years 1967, 1972, 1974, and 1986, and for Jul (but not Jun) in 1975. Cary (1902) and Bruner et al (1904) considered breeding to be probable in West Warbonnet Canyon based on several summer observations.

Migrants are not uncommon, however, as late as the second week of Jun in the northwest (Rosche 1982); Jun reports may also be the basis for purported nesting in the central Niobrara Valley (Bates 1900; Youngworth 1955). That these reports are likely non-breeding birds is indicated by summer reports from unlikely breeding locations 18 Jun and 27 Jul 1981 Garden Co, 22 Jun 1995 Garden Co, 23 Jun 1969 McPherson Co, 30 Jun 1967 Greeley Co, and 1-10 Jul 1989 Lincoln Co. A remarkable report was of a singing bird near Orleans, Harlan Co 6 Jul 2000 by observers familiar with the species from residence in the state of Washington; another was in the same place 23 Jun 2002.

Fall:  Aug 28, 29, 29 <<<>>> Oct 3, 4, 5

Earlier dates are 24 Aug Lincoln Co (Tout 1947), 25 Aug Webster Co (Ludlow 1935), 25 Aug 2018 Douglas Co, 26 Aug 2016 Douglas Co, and 26 Aug 2020 Sioux Co.

Later dates are 10 Oct 2017 Lancaster Co, 10 Oct 2019 Douglas Co, 14 Oct 2012 Sarpy Co, 15 Oct 2017 Lancaster Co, 26 Oct 2020 Lancaster Co, and 30 Oct 2001, a hatch year bird banded at Bellevue, Sarpy Co.

Arrival is in early Sep, with few records in Oct.

A specimen collected at Glenvil, Clay Co 3 Nov 1918 and identified as this species is no longer extant; it was likely a Hermit Thrush (Jorgensen 2012). We consider reports after mid-Oct to be of Hermit Thrushes. See Comments.

  • High counts: 24 in Lincoln, Lancaster Co 13 Sep 2012, 13 at Fontenelle Forest 15 Sep 2012, 11 at Wilderness Park, Lancaster Co 10 Sep 2020, and 10 near Chadron, Dawes Co 12 Sep 2014.

Winter: There is a single winter report, with “excellent details”, for 27 Jan-10 Feb 1980 in Washington Co (Williams 1980, Cortelyou 1980).

Comments: Far fewer Swainson’s Thrushes occur in fall than in spring. Ruegg and Smith (2002), using banding and genetic studies, proposed that the breeding range of “continental” Swainson’s Thrush (subspecies swainsoni ) shrank to a southeastern US refugium during the last glacial maximum. As the ice sheet receded, the breeding range expanded north and west. However, during fall migration, the thrushes continued to migrate southeastward to their ancestral breeding refugium, then south across the Gulf itself, thus setting up an elliptical migration pattern that largely avoids the central USA in fall.  Western “coastal” Swainson’s Thrushes (subspecies ustulatus and incanus), less disrupted by ice sheets, continued to migrate along the Pacific Coast on their ancestral pathway.


UNSM: University of Nebraska State Museum


Photograph (top) of a Swainson’s Thrush at Fontenelle Forest, Sarpy Co 18 Sep 2010 by Phil Swanson.

Literature Cited

American Ornithologists’ Union [AOU]. 1957. The AOU Check-list of North American birds, 5th ed.  Port City Press, Baltimore, Maryland, USA.

Bates, J.M. 1900. Additional notes and observations on the birds of northern Nebraska. Proceedings of Nebraska Ornithologists’ Union 1: 15-18.

Bruner, L., R.H. Wolcott, and M.H. Swenk. 1904. A preliminary review of the birds of Nebraska, with synopses. Klopp and Bartlett, Omaha, Nebraska, USA.

Cary, M. 1902. Some general remarks on the distribution of life in northwest Nebraska. Proceedings of Nebraska Ornithologists’ Union 3: 63-75.

Cortelyou, R.G. 1980. 1980 (Fifty-fifth) Spring Occurrence Report. NBR 48: 70-87.

Gill, F., and D. Donsker (Eds). 2017. IOC World Bird List (v 7.3), accessed 30 January 2018.

Hudson, G.E. 1939. Some ornithological results of a six-week’s collecting trip along the boundaries of  Nebraska. NBR 7: 4-7.

Jorgensen, J.G. 2012.  Birds of the Rainwater Basin, Nebraska.  Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Ludlow, C.S. 1935. A quarter-century of bird migration records at Red Cloud, Nebraska. NBR 3: 3-25.

Mack, D.E. and W. Yong. 2020. Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.swathr.01.

Mollhoff, W.J. 2001. 1999-2000 Nebraska nesting report. NBR 69: 92-101.

Mollhoff, W.J. 2005. The 2003-2004 Nebraska nest report. NBR 73: 15-19.

Oberholser, H.C. 1898. Description of a new North American thrush. Auk 15: 303-306.

Phillips, A.R. 1991. The known birds of North and Middle America. Part 2.  Published by the author, Denver Colorado, USA.

Rosche, R.C. 1974. A Nebraska Swainson’s Thrush nest. NBR 42: 17.

Rosche, R.C. 1982. Birds of northwestern Nebraska and southwestern South Dakota, an annotated checklist. Cottonwood Press, Crawford, Nebraska, USA.

Ruegg, K.C., and T.B. Smith. 2002. Not as the crow flies: A historical explanation for circuitous migration in Swainson’s thrush (Catharus ustulatus). The Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 269: 1375–1381.

Tallman, D.A., Swanson, D.L., and J.S. Palmer. 2002. Birds of South Dakota. Midstates/Quality Quick Print, Aberdeen, South Dakota, USA.

Thompson, M.C., C.A. Ely, B. Gress, C. Otte, S.T. Patti, D. Seibel, and E.A. Young. 2011. Birds of Kansas.  University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, USA.

Tout, W. 1947. Lincoln County birds. Published by the author, North Platte, Nebraska, USA.Williams, F. 1980. Southern Great Plains Region. American Birds 34: 286-288.

Youngworth, W. 1955. Some birds of the Quicourt Valley. NBR 23: 29-34.

Recommended Citation

Silcock, W.R., and J.G. Jorgensen.  2021.  Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus). In Birds of Nebraska — Online. www.BirdsofNebraska.org

Birds of Nebraska – Online

Updated 10 Jun 2021