Bicknell's Thrush

Catharus bicknelli (Ridgway, 1882)

Tim Laman/VIREO

Aves (Birds)
Turdidae (Thrushes)
State Protection
Special Concern
Listed as Special Concern by New York State: at risk of becoming Threatened; not listed as Endangered or Threatened, but concern exists for its continued welfare in New York; NYS DEC may promulgate regulations as to the taking, importation, transportation, or possession as it deems necessary.
Federal Protection
Migratory Bird Treaty Act
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act implements various treaties and conventions between the U. S. and Canada, Japan, Mexico and the former Soviet Union for the protection of migratory birds. Under this Act, taking, killing, or possessing migratory birds, including nests or eggs, is unlawful unless specifically permitted by other regulations.
State Conservation Status Rank
Imperiled or Vulnerable in New York - Very vulnerable, or vulnerable, to disappearing from New York, due to rarity or other factors; typically 6 to 80 populations or locations in New York, few individuals, restricted range, few remaining acres (or miles of stream), and/or recent and widespread declines. More information is needed to assign either S2 or S3. (A migratory animal which occurs in New York only during the breeding season.)
Global Conservation Status Rank
Apparently Secure globally - Uncommon in the world but not rare; usually widespread, but may be rare in some parts of its range; possibly some cause for long-term concern due to declines or other factors.


Did you know?

Until 1995 Bicknell's was considered a subspecies of the Gray-cheeked Thrush. It was first discovered by an amateur ornithologist in the 1880s on Slide Mountain in the Catskills (Rimmer et al. 2001).

State Ranking Justification

Bicknell's Thrush is considered one of the most at-risk passerines in eastern North America and is the Partners in Flight top conservation priority among neotropical migrants in the northeast. Because this long distance migrant has a naturally fragmented breeding range and narrow habitat preferences, its overall population size is expected to be low. Thus, it is expected to be highly vulnerable to habitat loss and/or degradation of its high elevation spruce/fir forest habitat. Although the great majority of this habitat type is already protected in the Adirondacks and Catskills, it is currently under threat from climate change and contaminant deposition (Lambert et al. 2005).

Short-term Trends

Since 2001, 37 different peaks in the Adirondacks and another 12 in the Catskills have been monitored by the Mountain Birdwatch Program (Hart and Lambert 2007). While there are some limitations with the data (i.e., every peak not monitored all years, different observers), certain conclusions, especially regarding occupancy patterns, can be made at this time. First, this species has apparently not declined in abundance since in either mountain range, and in fact the number of Bicknell's Thrushes in the Adirondacks has doubled from 1.5 birds/site in 2001 to 3 birds/site in 2007. Abundance in the Catskills has remained nearly stable since 2000. Occupancy trends can be analyzed back to 1992 using data from Atwood et al's. (1996) seminal paper in conjunction with the Mountain Birdwatch data. Here again, no significant declines are evident. In the Catskills, occupancy has remained high since 1992 with over 85% of the monitored peaks harboring breeding populations year to year, while in the Adirondacks occupancy has declined slightly (-1%/yr.) since 1992. There have been some site extirpations, but these seem to be readily recolonized, and the overall colonization rate is above the extinction rate. For both distribution and abundance of Bicknell's Thrushes in New York State, the prevailing pattern seems to be one of population fluctuations, rather than negative (or positive) population trends. Factors promoting these fluctuations apparently occur on the breeding grounds, and appear to relate to predator abundance, which in turn is dictated by the Balsam fir cone crop. Significant declines have been noted in the White Mountains since 1993 (King et al. in press) using similar monitoring techniques as the Mountain Birdwatch Program.

Long-term Trends

The overall number of Gray-cheeked plus Bicknell's Thrushes declined significantly between 1969-1995 at one fall migratory site in Virginia (Wilson and Watts 1997). A historically-known population on Mt. Greylock (since 1888) in Massachusetts gradually declined between 1961 and 1973 and has been vacant ever since. Nevertheless, Atwood et al. (1996) found that 63 of 73 known historical peaks throughout the northeast were still occupied in 1992-1995, including every known surveyed site in New York. Ellison's (2001) rangewide genetic analysis suggested that the Bicknell's population in the entire northeast has been relatively stable over the past several thousand years.

Conservation and Management


At the inaugural meeting of the International Bicknell's Thrush Working Group in November 2007, habitat loss on the wintering grounds in Hispaniola was ranked by experts as the most critical threat to this species. On the breeding grounds in the northeast, climate change, inducing reduced coverage of spruce/fir forests also presents a potential threat (Rodenhouse et al. 2007). Other potential breeding habitat threats addressed by the working group included ski resort and wind tower development, acid precipitation and other toxic deposition (especially mercury), recreational hiking, and predation by red squirrels.

Conservation Strategies and Management Practices

The majority of occupied peaks in New York are within the state-owned forest preserve in the Catskills and Adirondacks, so extensive site-specific management is precluded. Most key demographic parameters were found not to be significantly different between existing ski areas in the northeast and natural forests. Limited ski trail development (i.e., disturbance) may not be overly detrimental if implemented properly (Rimmer et al. 2004). A new Unit Management Plan for Whiteface Mountain Ski Area included recommendations to minimize the potential negative impacts of new trail development on Bicknell's Thrushes. These included reducing trail width, managing the edges of trails and the establishment of a Conservation Fund to help protect the species on its wintering rounds in Hispaniola (Rimmer et al. 2004). Degradation of both wintering and breeding ground habitat will require larger scale policy solutions that can't be implemented solely within New York State.

Research Needs

Preliminary data indicate that population size fluctuates with the biennial cycle of balsam fir cone crops, which correlates to elevated predator (red squirrels, chipmunks, voles) populations and depressed reproductive success in summers following high cone crops. There is also evidence for density-dependent population regulation on the breeding grounds (Rimmer et al. 2001). Thus, research is critically needed to disentangle the limiting factors regulating population distribution and abundance. Despite the fact that the most critical threats appear to be on the wintering grounds, if population regulation occurs primarily on the breeding grounds, mitigating wintering ground threats may be of lesser importance. Also, this species' naturally fragmented habitat suggests that metapopulation and source/sink dynamics may be relevant, and there is some evidence for this (Ellison 2001; Hobson et al. 2001). Further analyses of Mountain Birdwatch long-term data will be necessary to tease apart population dynamics.



This species is a habitat specialist restricted to naturally, and human-disturbed, montane spruce/fir forests with lesser amounts of other hardwoods such as Mountain Ash and Yellow Birch above about 3000 ft. Since there is a strong negative correlation between latitude and temperature, spruce/fir caps mountain tops at comparatively higher elevations in the Catskills than in the Adirondacks. Therefore, thrushes will nest down to about 2700 ft. in the Adirondacks, but generally only above 3500 ft. in the Catskills (Lambert et al. 2005). The highest nest densities are often associated with stunted Balsam fir areas along exposed ridgelines chronically disturbed by high winds and ice accumulation (Rimmer et al. 2001). There is some uncertainty about the importance of Bicknell's use of habitat ecotones at the lower elevational limits of occupancy (Hale 2006) and interspecific interactions with congeners, especially Swainson's Thrushes (Able and Noon 1976) at lower elevations. As the climate in the northeast warms, the spruce/fir ecotone presumably will migrate upslope (Rodenhouse et al. 2007), possibly favoring Swainson's, since Bicknell's is physiologically adapted to cooler temperatures (Holmes and Sawyer 1975). Such ecotones are well correlated with growing season temperatures; but in both the Catskills and Adirondacks only winter temperatures, not summer temperatures, have significantly risen since 1900 (Jenkins and Keal 2004). Further north in Canada, the species breeds in a wider array of habitats including low elevation coastal evergreen stands with similar forest structure to higher elevation sites, as well as dense second-growth forests (with a significant hardwood component) following large-scale disturbances such as clearcutting and/or fires (Nixon et al. 2001; Connolly et al. 2002; Campbell and Whittam 2006).

Associated Ecological Communities

  • Alpine krummholz (guide)
    A dwarf woodland dominated by balsam fir that occurs at or near the summits of the high peaks of the Adirondacks.
  • Mountain fir forest (guide)
    A conifer forest that occurs at high elevations in the Catskill and Adirondack mountains, usually at elevations ranging from 3500 to 4500 ft. This forest typically occurs on cool upper slopes that are exposed to wind, at elevations above spruce-northern hardwood forests, usually above mountain spruce fir forest, and below alpine krummholz. The vegetation typically has a low species diversity; the tree layer is almost entirely balsam fir.
  • Mountain spruce-fir forest (guide)
    A conifer forest that occurs at high elevations in the Catskill and Adirondack mountains, usually at elevations ranging from 3000 to 4000 ft. This forest occurs on upper slopes that are somewhat protected from the prevailing westerly winds, usually at elevations above spruce-northern hardwood forests, and below mountain fir forests. The dominant trees are red spruce and balsam fir.
  • Spruce-fir rocky summit (guide)
    A community that occurs on cool, dry, rocky ridgetops and summits where the bedrock is non-calcareous (such as anorthosite, quartzite, or sandstone), and the soils are more or less acidic. The vegetation may be sparse or patchy, with numerous rock outcrops and rock slides. The species have predominantly boreal distributions.

Associated Species

  • Swainson's Thrush (Catharus ustulatus)
  • Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis)
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata)
  • Blackpoll Warbler (Setophaga striata)
  • Winter Wren (Troglodytes hiemalis)
  • White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)


New York State Distribution

In New York, this species occupies mountain-top forests dominated by balsam fir and red spruce at elevations greater than about 3000 ft. in the Catskills and Adirondacks. In the Catskills, breeding is restricted to peaks generally above 3500 ft. within the forest preserve in southern Greene and central Ulster counties (Pierce-Berrin 2001). Occupied mountains in the Adirondacks are clustered around the High Peaks region in northwest Essex county, trending southwest (into central Hamilton county) to northeast into extreme southern Clinton County. The Adirondacks contain the largest area of suitable habitat in eastern North America, harboring perhaps 25% of the known breeding pairs (Atwood et al. 1996).

Global Distribution

The breeding range in eastern North America is naturally fragmented into several "sky islands" of high elevation montane spruce/fir forests at the highest elevations in eastern New York (Catskill and Adirondack Mountains), formerly Massachusetts (Mount Greylock), the spine of the Green Mountains in central and northern Vermont, the White Mountains in northern New Hampshire and Maine, northern Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, higher elevations on the Gaspe Peninsula, and the interior highlands of New Brunswick (Rimmer et al. 2001). The wintering grounds are poorly documented; known from Hispaniola, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and St. Croix. The non-breeding stronghold almost certainly is the Dominican Republic (Rimmer 1996); not known from Central or South America (Ouellet 1993). Migration records encompass eastern coastal states of the U.S. and Bahamas (Ouellet 1993).

Best Places to See

  • Hunter Mountain (Greene County)
  • Snowy Mountain (Hamilton County)

Identification Comments

General Description

This is a medium-sized thrush (6-7"; 1 oz.), but smaller and more slender than most Catharus thrushes. The upper parts are a warm brownish color and the breast is heavily spotted with brown over a white belly. A reddish tinge is present on the wings and tail.

Identifying Characteristics

The Bicknell's Thrush song consists of two introductory plucking notes (only audible at 10-12 meters) hurriedly followed by 2-4 high-pitched vibrant, ringing phrases that slur downward: rendered as "chook-chook, wee-o, wee-o, wee-o-ti-t-ter-ee" (Rimmer et al. 2001). Nests (12x12 cm) are cup-shaped and bulky, built primarily of twigs and moss, with an interior layer of decayed vegetation. The small (22x17 mm) eggs are subelliptical and bluish-green with light brown speckling (Rimmer et al. 2001).

Characters Most Useful for Identification

Subtle, but clear differences in song distinguish Bicknell's from other Catharus thrushes.


This thrush species has a male-skewed sex ratio and is considered to be polygynandrous. Single broods are sired by multiple males, and multiple males also bring food to a single nest (Goetz at al. 2003). This breeding system is assumed to be an adaptation to harsh montane conditions (Strong et al. 2004) where Bicknell's expend large amounts of energy for thermoregulation (Holmes and Sawyer 1975). Individuals are secretive and elusive, staying hidden among dense undergrowth and seldom coming out into the open. Males perform an evening flight song (Evans 1994).


Bicknell's Thrushes feed on insects and other arthropods, especially beetles and ants. The species is considered predominantly a ground forager, but sometimes fly-catches from an exposed perch (Rimmer et al. 2001).

Best Time to See

This is one of the last migrants to return to the breeding grounds in the spring (Ouellet 1996). Courtship activities begin shortly after arrival in mid May, nest-building begins by early June, eggs are laid by mid June, eggs hatch in late June, and the young fledge during July (Rimmer et al. 2001).

  • Active
  • Reproducing

The time of year you would expect to find Bicknell's Thrush active and reproducing in New York.

Similar Species

  • Veery (Catharus fuscescens)
    Veerys are more richly and uniformly reddish-brown above and less heavily spotted on the breast.
  • Gray-cheeked Thrush (Catharus minimus)
    These two species are very similar and the Bicknell's was formerly considered a subspecies of the Gray-cheeked. However they are wholly allopatric during the breeding season and the Gray-cheeked is somewhat larger, its upper parts are more grayish- brown.
  • Swainson's Thrush (Catharus ustulatus)
    Swainson's buffy facial pattern and distinct eye-ring are pronounced.

Bicknell's Thrush Images


Bicknell's Thrush
Catharus bicknelli (Ridgway, 1882)

  • Kingdom Animalia
    • Phylum Craniata
      • Class Aves (Birds)
        • Order Passeriformes (Perching Birds)
          • Family Turdidae (Thrushes)

Additional Resources


American Ornithologists Union. 1995. Fortieth supplement to the American Ornithologists' Union checklist of North American birds. Auk 112: 819-830.

Andrle, Robert F. and Janet R. Carroll, editors. 1988. The atlas of breeding birds in New York State. Cornell University Press. 551 pp.

Campbell, G., and B. Whittam. 2006. Bicknell's Thrush habitat in Nova Scotia's industrial forest. Final report to the Nova Forest Alliance. Bird Studies Canada, Sackville, NB.

Connolly, V., G. Seutin, J.L. Savard, and G. Rompre'. 2002. Habitat use by the Bicknell's Thrush in the Estrie Region, Quebec. Wilson Bulletin 114:333-341.

Ellison, W.G. 2001. Population structure and gene flow in two long distance migrant birds, the Bicknell's Thrush (Catharus bicknelli) and Veery (C. fuscescens). Ph.D. Dissertation, SUNY Albany.

Evans, W. R. 1994. Nocturnal flight call of Bicknell's thrush. Wilson Bull. 106:55-61.

Goetz, J.E., K.P. McFarland, and C.C. Rimmer. 2003. Multiple paternity and multiple male feeders in Bicknell's Thrush (Catharus bicknelli). The Auk 120:1044-1053.

Hale, S.R. 2006. Using satellite imagery to model distribution and abundance of Bicknell's Thrush (Catharus bicknelli) in New Hampshire's White Mountains. The Auk 123:1038-1051.

Hart, J.A., and J.D. Lambert. 2007. Mountain Birdwatch 2006. Final report to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Vermont Institute of Natural Science Technical report 07-3, Quechee, Vermont.

Hobson, K.A., K.P. McFarland, L.I. Wassenaar, C.C. Rimmer, and J.E. Goetz. 2001. Linking breeding and wintering grounds of Bicknell's Thrushes using stable isotope analyses of feathers. The Auk 118:16-23.

Hobson, K.A., Y. Aubry, and L.I. Wassenaar. 2004. Migratory connectivity in Bicknell's Thrush: locating missing populations with hydrogen isotopes. The Condor 106:905-909.

Holmes, R.T., and R.H. Sawyer. 1975. Oxygen consumption in relation to ambient temperature in five species of forest-dwelling thrushes (Hylocichla and Catharus). Comparative Biochemisty and Physiology 50A:527-531.

Jenkins, J, and A. Keal. 2004. The Adirondack Atlas: a geographic portrait of the Adirondack Park. Syracuse University Press, NY. 275pp.

King, D.I., J.D. Lambert, J.P. Buonaccorsi, and L.S. Prout. in press. Avian population trends in the vulnerable montane forests of the northern Appalachians, USA. Biodiversity and Conservation.

Lambert, J.D., K.P. McFarland, C.C Rimmer, S.D. Faccio, and J.L. Atwood. 2005. A practical model of Bicknell's Thush distribution in the northeastern United States. Wilson Bulletin 117:1-11.

McLaren, I. A. 1995. Field identification and taxonomy of Bicknell's thrush. Birding 27(5):358-366.

New York Natural Heritage Program. 2024. New York Natural Heritage Program Databases. Albany, NY.

Nixon, E.A., S.B. Holmes, and A.W. Diamond. 2001. Bicknell's Thrushes (Catharus bicknelli) in New Brunswick clear cuts: their habitat associations and co-occurrence with Swainson's Thrushes (Catharus ustulatus). Wilson Bulletin 113:33-40.

Ouellet, H. 1993. Bicknell's thrush: taxonomic status and distribution. Wilson Bull. 105:545-572.

Ouellet, H. 1996. Bicknell's Thrush. Pages 784-787 in J. Gauthier and Y. Aubry, editors. The breeding birds of Quebec. Canadian Wildlife Service, Environment Canada, Montreal.

Pierce-Berrin, Cheryl. 2001. Distribution and habitat selection of Bicknell's Thrush (Catharus bicknelli) in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. Master's Thesis. Antioch University, Keene, New Hampshire.

Rimmer, C. 1996. A closer look: Bicknell's thrush. Birding 28:118-123.

Rimmer, C. C. and K.P. McFarland. 1997. Population density, demographics, and distribution of Bicknell's Thrush and other subalpine birds on Hunter and Plateau Mountains, New York. Vermont Institute of Natural Science, Woodstock, VT.

Rimmer, C. C., J. L. Atwood, and L. R. Nagy. 1993. Bicknell's thrush: a northeastern songbird in trouble? Bird Observer 21:84-89.

Rimmer, C.C., J.L. Atwood, K.P. McFarland, and L.R. Nagy. 1996. Population density, vocal behavior, and recommended survey methods for Bicknell's Thrush. Wilson Bulletin 108:639-649.

Rimmer, C.C., K.P. McFarland, D.C. Evers, E.K. Miller, Y. Aubry, D. Busby, and R.J. Taylor. 2005. Mercury concentrations in Bicknell's Thrush and other insectivorous passerines in montane forests of northeastern North America. Ecotoxicology 14:223-240.

Rimmer, C.C., K.P. McFarland, J.D. Lambert, and R.B. Renfrew. 2004. Evaluating the use of Vermont ski areas by Bicknell's Thrush: applications for Whiteface Mountain, New York. Vermont Institute of Natural Science, Woodstock.

Rimmer, C.C., K.P. McFarland, W.P. Ellison, and J.E. Goetz. 2001. Bicknell's Thrush (Catharus bicknelli). In The Birds of North of America, No. 592 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc, Philadelphia, PA.

Rimmer, C.C., and K.P. McFarland. 2001. Known breeding and wintering sites of a Bicknell's Thrush. Wilson Bulletin 113:234-236.

Rodenhouse, N.L., S.N. Matthews, and K.P. McFarland. 2007. Potential effects of climate change on birds of the northeast in C.P. Wake, P. Frumhoff, J. McCarhy, J. Melillo, S. Moser, and D. Wuebbles (eds.) Northeast United States Climate Impact Assessment, Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change.

Sibley, C.G., and B.L. Monroe, Jr. 1990. Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT. xxiv + 1111 pp.

Strong, A.M., C.C. Rimmer, and K.P. McFarland. 2004. Effect of prey biomass on reproductive success and mating strategy of Bicknell's Thrush (Catharus bicknelli), a polygynandrous songbird. The Auk 121:446-451.

Terres, J. K. 1980. The Audubon Society encyclopedia of North American birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Wallace, G.J. 1939. Bicknell's Thrush, its taxonomy, distribution, and life history. Proceedings of the Boston Society of Natural History 41:211-402.

Wilson, M.D., and B. Watts. 1997. Autumn migration of Gray-cheeked and Bicknell's Thrushes at Kiptopeke, Virginia. Journal of Field Ornithology 68:519-525.


About This Guide

Information for this guide was last updated on: April 5, 2019

Please cite this page as:
New York Natural Heritage Program. 2024. Online Conservation Guide for Catharus bicknelli. Available from: Accessed June 23, 2024.