Brown thrasher

Don’t disturb a brown thrasher’s nest or else you might incur their wrath.

I was thrilled last week to catch a brown thrasher bathing in one of my birdbaths.

I had caught a quick glimpse of one in flight last year, enough that I could log it in my eBird journal with some confidence, but no chance for a photo for my iNaturalist log.

The flight was jerky and fluttering with a show of the bright coloring and long tail. This time, I got a good long look with the proof photos.

Brown thrashers, Toxostoma rufum, are big birds at 11.5 inches with a very long tail, slightly smaller than Blue Jays and larger than a Northern Mockingbird. The coloring is a bright reddish brown. They have two distinctive black and white wingbars, yellow eyes, and a bulky somewhat down-curved bill. The breast is either white or may have a slight yellow wash with bold black splotches. Males and females look alike.

It is a winter visitor in Central Texas spending its summers farther north in the eastern United States.

Thrashers get their name because they rummage or thrash through leaf litter in tangled thickets or forests. They are usually seen walking, running and hopping along the ground in thick undergrowth.

Brown thrashers are true omnivores eating a wide variety of foods. They sweep their bills back and forth through the leaf litter looking for insects and other invertebrates. More than half of the diet is insect such as beetles, grubs, cutworms, caterpillars, leafhoppers, cicadas, grasshoppers, wasps, and sowbugs. They also eat lizards, snakes and treefrogs.

My brown thrasher appeared at my feeding/water areas right nest to a brushy, vegetated undergrowth area with a lot of protective cover, a perfect habitat for a thrasher. They usually stay close to thick undergrowth areas where they can retreat quickly to safety. They will visit bushes and trees with berries such as blueberries, holly, elderberries, hackberries, Virginia creeper, sumac and grapes. However, they may also visit bird feeders or pick up fallen seed from the ground because their diet also includes some seeds and nuts. They pound acorns with their bills to open them.

While brown thrashers are common birds, their numbers have been declining. Between 1966 and 2015, the population declined by 41%, probably because we have been clearing forests and undergrowth areas for agriculture and for housing. They are also affected by pesticides to control insects.

While I have not had a chance to enjoy the songs of brown thrashers, they have one of the largest repertoires of song of any North American songbird, over 1,100 different songs. Some of the songs imitate other birds.

They do breed in north Texas. During nesting, the males defend their territory by singing loudly from prominent perches. During courtship, the male sings softly and brings leaves or sticks to present to the female.

Nests are 2-12 feet from the ground in dense shrubs or tangled vines. Both parents build a bulky nest. The foundation is sticks that support a cup of twigs, leaves, weeds, grass lined with finer materials of grass or rootlets. They protect their nest fiercely, even striking people and dogs hard enough to draw blood.

Nestlings leave the nest fully feathered only nine days after hatching, earlier than some of their relatives.

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