The Townsend’s Solitaire

The Townsend’s Solitaire, not a familiar species to most, is a bird found year- round in the mountains of the western U.S. and Canada during the breeding season. Wintering at 5000 feet elevation in northeastern California at the shores of Eagle Lake, I studied them over four winter seasons. From about New Year’s Day to the end of January, I studied Townsend’s Solitaires on an 80-acre plot of Junipers, Jeffery Pine, and Mountain Mahogeny. Cold from dawn to dusk, dragging myself out of my cozy cabin took at least a whole pot of coffee. Walking through the forest stumbling through a thick undergrowth of gooseberry bushes and several inches of snow kept me warm except when I stopped to measure or take notes. (Hint to budding field ornithologists: use waterproof paper and write in pencil. Melting paper and running ink can ruin your day.)

Townsend’s Solitaire

Too difficult to watch birds, measure territories, and count juniper berries simultaneously, I alternated days until I had all the measurements and berry counting done, about 10 days. At night, around the Franklin stove, I rewrote and organized my data and dried my clothes and boots.

Townsend’s Solitaires eat virtually nothing but juniper berries the entire winter, although they may have eaten some insect larvae and eggs because the berries (actually cones) are low in protein (4%) and high in undigestible fiber (34%). But their 46% carbohydrate and 16% fat composition were enough to get the birds through the winter. I sampled the berries on each juniper tree in their territory but not by counting every berry – that would have been an onerous chore. I used a wooden frame of one-half square meter to sample several random areas on each tree. Every year the crops were different – sometimes the berries were abundant and sometimes they were scarce.

Juniper Berries

Sitting on the tops of tall trees, the solitaires sing to declare their territory and warn intruders – other solitaires as well as American Robins. It makes sense to guard a dense and easily defensible food supply as a concentrated food supply is easy to defend and the energy expended in defense is more than made up by the easily accessible food supply. The birds spent up to 90 percent of their daytime actively defending their territories by singing from treetops and chasing intruders. When they fed, they did so rapidly by picking berries from the ground under the trees, apparently deriving sufficient nutrition.

Advertising Territory

Dense food years saw the solitaires defend their territory, but in years of a low concentration of juniper berries, the Townsend’s Solitaires did not defend a territory, they just wandered, finding what berries they could.

A territory low in berry density would have to be much larger to encompass a sufficient number of berries for survival. But a larger territory requires more time in defense, so there comes a point when defense is no longer energy-efficient and random foraging becomes the better strategy. Hummingbirds do the same thing when nectar-filled flowers become scarce. This is called “facultative territoriality” and has been found in other birds whose food supply is unpredictable.

But food supply is not the only factor. The weather, the number of competitors, predators, snow cover, and alternative food sources come into play as well.

Again, the rewarding and even fun part of this kind of research in uncomfortable, sometimes miserable, conditions, is coming back to the main university campus and my warm office to analyze the data and write it for publication. (Facultative Territorialty in Townsend’s Solitaire (Myadestes townsendi). The Southwestern Naturalist, Vol. 25, No. 4 (Feb. 16, 1981), pp. 461-467.

17 thoughts on “The Townsend’s Solitaire

      1. I heard a single note call at 2am in the Pocono Mts of Eastern PA at 2am. Merlin bird app IDed it as the Townsend’s Solitaire. And then again at 1030 am.
        Any thoughts?

          1. There have been sightings of them here in the east. Would you be interested in listening to my video to see what you think?

  1. I have one at my house outside of Santa Fe. He would attack the windows on my house everyday. He started on one side of the house in September and moved to the other-side by October. He also would peck at windows in my guest casita and garage. We got to know each other well to the point that he or she(?) would stay while I talked to him/her. I have lots of junipers around my house. Do you know how to tell whether male or female? I have lots of pictures of my little friend.

      1. Do you think the behavior is odd? He would peck and fly up the window everyday for hours. I had various workers at the house and they noticed it too.

        1. Neat!! I spent Thanksgiving morning at my cabin in the foothills north of Denver, hanging with a Townsend solitaire pecking at my windows. He/she didn’t seem to mind the dog or myself. I’ve never seen anything like it! Worry about it hurting itself.

  2. I had same reaction about worrying about him/her getting hurt. It went on like that for a long time the whole 2-1/2 months I was in my house in Santa Fe. I am now in New and kinda miss him/her. If I could figure out how to post some pictures of the TS here I could. I have so many pictures since towards the end of my stay it would look at me outside the house. Hopefully, it is keeping a watch on things while I am gone.

      1. Do you happen to know the function of the tooting whistle vs the gibberish garbled rather quiet song? I have on several occasions seen two TOSOs very close to each other making these different sounds. The ones doing the tooting were up high and easily seen on the tops of junipers, while the soft singers were well hidden in the lower branches of junipers. I thought it might still be paired birds but you say they keep territories. Any idea of what is going on these situations? Thanks. Dusti

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.