Feathered Friends

The Brown Thrasher

Story and Drawing by Spike Knuth, Contributing Columnist

 

At first sight you may see the flash of a long, bright reddish-brown tail disappear into a dense shrub.

After a time, a series of long, variable, whistled phrases emanate from the deep shade. The phrases are uttered twice, followed by a pause; then comes another series of whistled, scratchy and gurgling phrases. After a time, the bird may show itself, and the viewer will be awed by this distinctive bird. It is normally very secretive, skulking around in thick shrubs and ground cover. But when it reveals itself, the long tail and bill make it look especially large and impressive.

The brown thrasher is one of the mimic thrushes — a family that includes the mockingbird and the catbird. Thanks to its long tail, and long, slightly curved bill, it measures nearly a foot in length. Its color above is a reddish-brown (its Latin name rufum means “red of various shades, tawny”), with creamy white underparts, which are streaked with tear-shaped black marks. The cheeks are dull white or gray, often with brown or dusky flecks. The wings are short and rounded. During breeding season it has distinctive double black-and-white wing bars. Also very noticeable are its yellow, “staring” eyes.

This bird is sometimes confused with the wood thrush, but the wood thrush has a shorter tail, large round spots on its breast rather than streaked spots, and black eyes. The name “thrasher” probably comes from the bird’s habit of twitching its tail. There are other thrasher species in the western United States, but the brown thrasher is the only one found east of the Rockies and central Texas.

The brown thrasher’s calls are similar to the mockingbird’s; however, it utters its varied phrases only twice, while the mockingbird repeats its phrases three times, and it isn’t the mimic the mockingbird is. Its other sounds include hissing and clicking sounds, or “chuck” and “churr” calls. It’s not as flashy a flier as the mockingbird, either. When flying, the brown thrasher’s tail tends to be held somewhat stiffly, straight out behind it, while the mockingbird flashes and twists its tail. The brown thrasher has a tendency to stay undercover, flying quickly from shrub to shrub, only coming out occasionally to feed.

Brown thrashers prefer upland thickets, lake or streamside thickets, woodlands edges, old fields or clear-cuts with scattered brushy shrubs and small, bushy trees, and tangles of vines. Around cities or in suburbia, brown thrashers gravitate to dense shrubs, especially thorny ones like pyracantha or barberry, but also holly, chokecherry, bush honeysuckle, photinia or forsythia; any dense hedges.  

In spring, the male will sing from a high perch, often at the very top of a high tree, to attract a mate and to challenge or warn rival males. The thrasher nests in dense shrubs close to the ground, anywhere from one to 14 feet up, but usually about five feet high. The nest may be in a mock orange, forsythia, holly, or pyracantha. We’ve had them build in both forsythia and mock orange in our yard. The mock orange was so thick it was a wonder the bird could get its long body in and out of the shrub to and from its nest. Thorny shrubs are often favored. It builds a flat, loosely constructed, good-sized nest of twigs, leaves, stems, paper scraps, lined with fine vegetable fibers. Females lay two or six eggs that are pale greenish- or bluish-white, finely spotted with brown. Brown thrashers normally have two broods. Incubation takes 11-14 days, and the fast-growing young fledge in another 11-12 days.

The brown thrasher is one bird that regularly takes dust baths as well as water baths to rid itself of tiny parasites. Apparently this is an important activity, because the bird will readily come out into the open to a dusting spot. It usually feeds near or on the ground in leaf mulch or humus, digging with its long bill or scratching with its feet for a variety of insects, grubs, slugs, salamanders, and worms. In late fall and winter the bird turns to wild fruits and berries, seeds, even small acorns; and if the weather doesn’t get too harsh, a few actually stay with us through the winter in protected places. Those that do migrate don’t go very far.

Brown thrashers breed in southern Canada from southeastern Alberta east; and from the eastern side of the Rockies and central Texas, east to Florida and all the eastern states and Canada. They winter from southern Missouri and southern New Jersey south to the Gulf Coast. 

 

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