Illinois Migratory Thrushes

Illinois has seven regularly occuring thrushes, five of which are long-distance migrants: Wood Thrush, Swainson’s Thrush, Grey-cheeked Thrush, Hermit Thrush, and Veery. American Robins and Eastern Bluebirds (also in the thrush family) are year-round residents or short-distance migrants.

Wood Thrush
Wood Thrush - Blackhawk Springs Forest Preserve

One of the most common of the migratory thrushes, the Wood Thrush is easily identified by its mystical song but at times is somewhat difficult to see. It is the only one of the five that commonly nests in Illinois. The Wood Thrush resides in heavy forested areas and spends most of its time near the ground. There are some concerns over on-going population declines due to deforestation and cowbird parasitism.

A Wood Thrush often returns to the same breeding territory in successive years. It also may return to the same wintering area each year. – Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Hermit Thrush

Identified by its reddish tail, brown back, and spotty chest, the Hermit Thrush spends the winter in North America, switching its diet from insects in the warmer months to a mixture of fruit and insects. The Hermit Thrush’s song is melodious and haunting. Population trends show they are increasing over most of their range.

East of the Rocky Mountains the Hermit Thrush usually nests on the ground. In the West, it is more likely to nest in trees. – Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Swainson’s Thrush
Swainson's Thrush

The Swainson’s Thrush can be identified by its buffy face and prominant eyering. This thrush also has a melodious flute song that is very enjoyable to listen to.

The Swainson’s Thrush is the only woodland thrush whose song goes up in pitch. – Cornell Lab of Ornithology

They mostly nest in coniferous forests and winter as far south as Argentina. Unfortunately, the Swainson’s Thrush’s numbers appear to be declining.

Gray-cheeked Thrush

The Gray-cheeked Thrush is closely related to Bicknell’s Thrush and despite having a much larger range, has not gained as much attention. The Gray-cheeked has a plain gray face with light streaking but no eyering. It migrates through Illinois and is usually a headline item on birding hotlines.

Of all the American spotted thrushes, the Gray-cheeked has the most northern breeding range. Consequently this shy skulker of the underbrush is not well known and is rather infrequently seen. – Cornell Lab of Ornithology


The Veery is the least spotted of the migratory thrushes and has a distinct orangish brown (“tawny”) coloring. The Veery’s call is a descending “da-vee-ur, vee-ur, veer, veer,” as if echoing part of its name. The Veery nests in damp deciduous forests of the north and Rocky Mountains. There is some decline throughout its range.

A study of migration using radio telemetry showed that the Veery can fly up to 160 miles (285 km) in one night, and that it can fly at altitudes above 1.2 miles (2,000 m). – Cornell Lab of Ornithology

The five migratory thrushes of Illinois make up some of the highlights of spring and fall migration. They are all skulkers and best identified by sound, and thus provide an interesting challenge to birders. However, these thrushes can be found fairly easily in good backyard habitat suitable for them.

The Birdfreak Team’s backyard preserve, The Callaway Nature Preserve, has attracted all but the Gray-cheeked (possibility). Thrushes need lots of cover so brush-piles, shrubs, and hostas among others can do the trick. Fresh water, especially drippers also help attract thrushes.

A trick to finding thrushes is to scan the area below eye-level to the ground and watch for slight movement. Thrushes often freeze for relatively long periods of time, providing good looks.

eBird Histogram of Illinois Migrant Thrushes

5 thoughts on “Illinois Migratory Thrushes

  1. Hello I think I am seeing a thrush in my backyard, near the University of Chicago. It looks most like a Veery because it is almost entirely tawny, a lovely milk chocolate brown, except for a spotted throat. I have seen it three times, twice in a small tree and just yesterday on the ground where it pecked for several minutes apparently finding food. Sightings have mostly been April, maybe late March. Is this possible?

  2. Is there a way to send photos of our “mystery” bird? I think we had a Grey-cheeked thrush Don Quixote I to our bay window this morning, but it revived in my hand and then flew off! Thanks in advance!

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