By Tom Dennis
Brown Thrasher, Toxostoma rufum
Who’s responsible for taking the mulch from your flower beds and spreading it all over the walkway edges every morning? The neighborhood children, the neighbor’s cat, a pesky mole or some unknown force of nature? More likely, you had an early morning visit from the crown prince of sidewalk trashers, the Brown Thrasher! The good news is that this hungry bird is also ridding your mulch of the insects that snack on your flowers and shrubs. Let’s read on to learn more about this summer visitor to our area.
Brown Thrasher adults are approximately the size of our American Robin (thrush family) weighing in at about 2.4 ounces but they are about 1.5 inches longer at 11.5 inches. This is a good time to point out that Brown Thrashers are sometimes erroneously referred to as Brown Thrush but don’t do it…thrushes and thrashers are two distinct families of birds. The sexes are identical in appearance with a rufous-brown head, back, long tail, and wings that also have two white wing bars. The undersides are buff with heavy black streaking and the long legs and feet are dark brown. The bill is black above and tan on the lower mandible and it is curved downward. Juvenile birds have an olive colored eye that changes to a bright golden yellow with age. Like the Gray Catbird that we reviewed in the last article, they are short-distance migrators that fly during the night. Their breeding range extends north only to the southern edges of Canada and east of the Rocky Mountains. They are year-round inhabitants along most of the Gulf Coast and Atlantic seaboard states, extending their winter range to cover most of Texas and southeastern New Mexico.
Thrashers and Gray Catbirds are members of the mimid family that includes the well-known Northern Mockingbird whose songs are quite similar. The Brown Thrasher, however, is a talented and musical singer and has the largest song repertoire of all birds with a “playlist” of 3,000 distinct songs! If you listen to one carefully you will notice that they repeat each phrase two or three times.
Brown Thrashers are omnivores, having a diet ranging from insects to fruits, nuts, and seeds. Insects comprise well over 50% of the diet with a preference for grasshoppers and beetles. They are well camouflaged and nest in shrubs and small trees where they are most often heard singing from an inconspicuous perch. They are highly territorial however and have been known to attack animals as large as humans when defending their nests and young. If you’re an early riser you may want to watch for them in your well-mulched gardens when they are foraging for insects by scratching (and re-arranging your mulch piles). The name thrasher is thought to have come from the sound they make while digging through ground debris with their bill for food.
To attract Brown Thrashers, plant shrubs and dense deciduous trees to simulate wide forest edges. Allowing leaf litter as well as mulch will also attract these ground feeders so don’t be fastidious in ground clean up under shrubs and tree stands. The best shrub and tree choices are native Michigan species that produce small fruit and nuts such as serviceberry, dogwood, flowering crab, oaks, and highbush cranberries (a Viburnum species). Their heavy dietary preference for insects is a benefit to people both economically and environmentally if we avoid the use of pesticides and let creation do the job of balancing nature.
If you wish to learn more about birds you should consider one of several very good electronic devise “apps” such as the free, Cornell Lab Merlin, an excellent choice for beginners to advanced birders. You are also welcome to attend Blue Water Audubon meetings held at The Point, 5085 Lakeshore Rd, in Fort Gratiot on the first Monday of the month, October through May at 6:45 PM. Please visit our Facebook page, “Blue Water Audubon Society”, and be sure to friend us.
Tom Dennis is a free-lance writer, passionate birder, zoologist, creation scientist, gardener, and naturalist.