Bird Watcher's General Store

Brown Thrashers - 05/07/10


Dear Bird Folks,

Where have all the Brown Thrashers gone? I used to have a pair around my house every summer but I have not seen them in years. I miss them. Has anything happened to them?

– Judy, Truro, MA

I’m glad, Judy,

This may be a case of misery loving company, but in a selfish way I’m glad you aren’t seeing any Brown Thrashers. For many years I also had a pair of Brown Thrashers nesting around my house; then suddenly they stopped coming. I was starting to think it was me. Not only was I the only person on the Cape not getting bluebirds, the thrashers were avoiding me, too. I didn’t know what to do. I even stopped eating garlic-flavored tofu. I thought perhaps that was keeping the birds away, but all I got when I cut out the garlic was a lot of vampires. Talk about a pain in the neck. I can’t go outside without wearing a turtleneck, and that is so not my style.

At first glance, a Brown Thrasher looks like a Wood Thrush. Both birds feed on the ground, have rusty-brown backs and speckled bellies. But thrashers have yellow, grackle-looking eyes and slender bodies, while thrushes have dark eyes and chubby bodies, looking like they never met a doughnut they didn’t like.

Thrashers are members of the mimic family, the same family that includes mockingbirds, catbirds and Rich Little. Thrashers don’t mimic other birdcalls as well as mockingbirds do, but they are amazing singers. By some accounts they can sing over 1,100 different songs, all strung together forming one long tune. Males will often sing for an hour straight without repeating a single song. Unfortunately, his ability to sing hundreds of different songs only lasts until he reaches the age of retirement. Once retired, like a lot of men, he’ll often repeat the same thing over and over, no matter how many times we’ve heard it before.

Thrashers’ songs typically consist of a string of identical two-word phrases, followed by a different set of identical phrases and so on. The song of the Brown Thrasher reminds me of the way we talk to dogs. You know: “Here boy, here boy.” “Sit down, sit down.” “Lie down, lie down.” “Good dog, good dog.” Say, I have a question. Why do we always say things twice when we talk to dogs? Anyone know? Anyone know?

Brown Thrashers spend 95% of their day on the ground searching for worms and insects. Most observers feel the name “thrasher” comes from the bird’s habit of “thrashing” pine needles and leaf litter with their longs bills as they search for food. Another possibility for the name refers to the thrashing the birds give to predators while defending their nests. These birds can be nasty. A few weeks ago, I wrote about Australian Magpies and how they become aggressive during nesting season. Well, those Aussie magpies are pacifists compared to thrashers. More than one person, including my grandfather-in-law (if there is such a term), has had their face bloodied when they unknowingly came too close to a thrasher’s nest. (Are you sure you want these birds back in your yard, Judy?)

Brown Thrashers can be found throughout most of the eastern half of the United States, but in some locations their population has been declining. The reasons for the decline aren’t clear, but changes in land use could be one of the causes. Thrashers don’t like wide-open fields, but they don’t like thick forests either. Their habitat of choice is a secondary forest. They like areas with shrubs and saplings. When the early Europeans arrived here, and chopped their way through the eastern part of this country, they created what eventually became great thrasher habitat. As years passed, dense forests slowly grew back and many regions became less appealing to thrashers.

Have you ever seen an old picture of Cape Cod? (This is a rhetorical question; you don’t have to raise your hand.) The image that stands out in my mind is how open and barren everything used to be. Eventually shrubs and small trees grew back and the thrashers moved in. But ultimately the trees matured, the woods filled in and the birds found the Cape less attractive. Years ago I used to hear thrashers singing along the power lines near my house. The birds loved the little trees that grew there, but that all changed in the late ‘70s. One morning I awoke to find a tanker truck driving under the power lines, spraying Agent Orange-ish stuff as it went. The defoliant killed all the little trees and the thrashers never returned. Thanks, NSTAR, or whoever it was back then.

Even though the Brown Thrasher population is declining around here they aren’t necessarily in trouble. The birds have expanded into the Great Plains (or what used to be the Great Plains), to take advantage of the trees and shrubs people have planted there. Probably the only thing you can do to bring thrashers back to Cape Cod, Judy, is cut down all the big trees and wait for the little trees to fill in, but that could take some time. While you are waiting for the saplings to grow, you could swing by my house. I have all these vampires milling about my yard and I could use a hand dealing with them. Just remember to bring some garlic and wear a turtleneck.




Artwork by Catherine Clark


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