Walking in Lamoille Canyon on a summer morning, the air is filled with bird song, and that is nice. Walking in Lamoille Canyon on a cold January morning and hearing bird song seems quite odd.
Winter walkers will often hear bird calls. Mountain chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches and Clark’s nutcrackers call, mostly to keep their flocks together. However, this bird is obviously singing, producing a series of flute-like whistles much like a robin.
The Townsend’s solitaire is a thrush, closely related to the robin. You may see this gray bird close enough to spot a white eye ring. The best way to identify this solitaire is to watch it fly away from a perch. The outer feathers of its long tail are white and provide a white flash as it flies away.
Some solitaires summer high in the Ruby Mountains but most of these birds spent their summer in Canada. They migrated south to the Rubies to spend winter. In summer, they eat insects and berries, but their favorite winter food is juniper berries. They are most often seen in lower Lamoille Canyon among juniper trees.
During spring and summer, most birds sing to declare and defend a territory. Their song warns others of their species to stay away. The singing males claims enough property to provide nesting sites and food resources for their young.
The Townsend’s solitaires do this but they also sing in winter to declare and defend a territory containing enough juniper berries to last the winter. They perch upright on the very tops of juniper trees to advertise their territory. In years of poor berry supply, they even defend their territory against birds of other species.
Their food territoriality provides winter walkers with pleasant — and surprising — bird song on cold winter days.