Brush up on your thrushes!

Redwing (Turdus iliacus) feeding on hawthorn berries in snowy winter hedgerow - Chris Gomersall

Read our ecologist Anne's quick and easy tips to ID your winter thrushes.

Our gardens can be important habitats for thrushes, especially over the harsh winter months when some species may move into gardens as berry stocks in the wider countryside are depleted. If you’re like me, you’ll enjoy watching these enchanting birds hopping across your garden or moving in a flock out on a nature reserve, but sometimes find it a bit tricky to tell one thrush from the next as many are similar sizes, shapes and they are all speckled! Here are some quick and easy tips to help you tell these birds apart.

WildNet - Jon Hawkins - Surrey Hills Photography

Redwings are the smallest of the UK thrushes and are a winter migrant. They are smaller than a blackbird, with a brown head, back and tops of the wings.

The striking creamy white stripes just above the eye (supercilium) are a good identifier for this winter thrush, as well as its rust red flanks and underwings from which it gets its name. Its speckled chest is a creamy white compared with the fieldfare’s orangey colouration.

You will see these birds feasting on berry-laden bushes in hedgerows, open fields, orchards and parks, such as hawthorn, holly and rowan.

Fun fact: Listen out for a high-pitched ‘tseep, tseep’ at night in the autumn and winter. It’s the sound of redwings flying overhead, arriving in Britain to spend the winter here.

Fieldfare

Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris) feeding on berries in hawthorn hedge - Chris Gomersall

Fieldfare is slightly larger than a blackbird and are also a winter migrant.

They have a grey head and tail with brown across the wings and back. Their orangey chest has darker speckles than that of the redwing. The underwing is white if you catch a flash of it whilst this bird is in flight. Fieldfares are slightly taller and plumper with longer tails than redwings. 

They are very social birds, spending the winter in flocks of anything from a dozen or two to several hundred strong, often with other thrushes and starlings. They also feast on berries in the winter, as well as enjoying windfall apples.

These birds stand very upright and move forward with purposeful hops when on the ground.

Fun fact: Its name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘feldware’ which means ‘traveller of the fields’ – describing its roaming through open countryside.

Mistle thrush

Mistle thrush - Donald Sutherland

The mistle thrush is the largest of the thrushes, larger than a fieldfare or blackbird, and with a long tail. It is resident in the UK.

It has cooler tones than the song thrush, which is the bird it is most commonly confused with. It appears almost grey compared to the song thrush’s warmer olive tones. It has a white underwing and tips of feathers edged with white, as well as pale outer edges to the tail. The speckles on the chest of a mistle thrush are 'rounder' than the streaks of the song thrush and come together to form dark patches on the flanks. 

The mistle thrush is also less frequently seen in gardens than a song thrush. Like the fieldfare, the mistle thrush often adopts a very bold, aggressive and upright posture when on the ground.

The mistle thrush eats berries in the winter, with holly, yew, ivy, rowan and mistletoe all being eaten – the latter being where the species is believed to have derived its name from.

Fun fact: The male mistle thrush has a very loud but pleasant song which is not dissimilar to that of a blackbird, although less fluting, which it blasts out from a high perch to attract a mate and defend his territory. This loud, far-carrying song is delivered even in wet and windy weather, earning the bird the old name of 'stormcock'.

Song thrush

Song thrush - Karen Lloyd

The final thrush we will cover is the song thrush, which is also resident in the UK. The song thrush is also smaller than a blackbird.

It is warmer-toned than the mistle thrush - appearing more of a buff or olive brown colour. Its tail is the same colour and lacks the white outer tail feathers seen on the mistle thrush. The underwing is a rusty-buff colour and this colour may extend onto the flanks of the song thrush. The tips of the wing feathers are also edged with rusty-buff. The song thrush’s chest speckles are more streak-like - often shaped like upside-down hearts or arrowheads.

This bird is more commonly seen in gardens than the mistle thrush and adopts a more horizontal position when on the ground than the mistle thrush or fieldfare. Its diet is largely earthworms and snails, and other insects. It also eats fruit and berries in the winter.

It has a beautiful and distinctive song with melodic phrases which are repeated twice or more.

Fun fact: Song thrushes are known for breaking open snail shells by smashing the shell against a hard object such a stone. This behaviour is unique to these birds.

Thankfully, both sexes of each of the above birds looks very similar, which saves a little bit of confusion. I hope this helps you get your thrushes sussed!