by Frank Keim
The Gray-cheeked thrush is probably the shyest of all the brown-backed thrushes. You won’t see them very often during their migration, because they do so at night, although since the boreal north is bathed in sunshine for almost 24 hours in the summer, you have a better chance of seeing them here at that time.
On their breeding grounds they are also elusive, but if you are paddling down a northern river in a canoe you will not only hear them, but, if you look closely, you will see them singing from the treetops. Their song is so sweet, I have often stopped my canoe in mid-stride to listen to them. If I were to compare their song to something, I would say it sounded like a reedy whiplash inflected downward at the end. Hence the Yup’ik names above, which seem to be imitative of their song.
The thrush also has other imitative Yup’ik names that are variants of those in the title: Yuulerviuq for the Hooper Bay area, and Suulerviuq for the Yukon. The two elders in Hooper Bay and Scammon Bay who gave me those names also gave me Viuq, which seems to be the short generic Yup’ik name for the bird.
As with other thrushes, the males arrive first on the breeding grounds to find a territory and defend it with their reedy songs. When the females arrive a week or so later, they carefully listen to and watch potential mates for their strengths and weaknesses, including their courting chase, which involves hot pursuit by the male with his crest erect and his bill gaping. Based on their performances, the female decides on who the father of her young will be.
Once decided, she searches for a good spot to build her nest, which usually ends up being in the crotch of the lower branches of a small spruce or tamarack, or sometimes on the ground next to a willow or alder. As the male continues to sing and defend the pair’s home territory, his mate builds the nest by herself in the form of a neat open cup made of grass, twigs, weeds, moss and small strips of bark, with a measure of mud added to keep it all together.
When the nest is complete, the female lays up to five pale blue eggs with faint brown splotches on them. She alone incubates them for 12-14 days, then after they hatch both parents feed their nestlings for another 12 or 13 days, after which they fledge and join the adult world of their parents. It is then they start feeding themselves with the diet of their elders, which includes a wide variety of insects, spiders and wild berries. They feed mostly on the ground, but will sometimes land in small shrubs or trees to eat any ripe berries they find there.
A cool fact about the Suulerviaguq is that during their fall migration, both Alaskan birds and those that nest in Siberia migrate across the Canadian north to the Maritime Provinces before turning south. From the American east coast, the birds make a non-stop flight across the Caribbean Sea to northern South America where they winter. In spring, they return north along the eastern shores of Central America and Mexico.
It is interesting that the only other common English name I could find for this bird was Alice’s thrush. I wonder who Alice was?
The bird also has a French name, Grive a joues grises, and a Spanish name, Zorzal cara gris, both meaning, “gray-cheeked thrush.”
Its scientific name is Catharus minimus, meaning, “smallest thrush with a pure song.”