IF YOU ARE DRIVING ALONG on one of our narrower, quieter, country roads and a fairly large rusty-colored bird quickly flies across in front of you, it is probably a brown thrasher. For a size comparison, the cardinal is 8 1/2” long while the brown thrasher is 11”. The thrasher is an elusive bird, so don’t expect to stop and easily locate it. The best way to see it is to go back in the evening and quietly wait for it to sit on top of a bushy thicket, or a tangle of multiflora rose cane. It will probably be found by listening for its loud song reminiscent in quality to a northern mockingbird but without the repeating of so many other birds’ songs.
The thrasher will occasionally mimic a few birds like the northern cardinal, tufted titmouse or northern flicker. Some describe the song as “plant-a-seed, plant-a-seed, bury-it, bury-it, cover-it-up, cover-it-up, let-it-grow, let-it-grow, pull-it-up, pull-it-up, eat-it, eat-it, yum-yum.” It usually repeats each change of pitch and phrase twice and just keeps on singing. Some researchers have recorded it continuously singing over a thousand phrases, much more than the mockingbird, which usually comes to mind when we think of prize songsters. This credit should belong to the brown thrasher. Somehow though, our singing, “Listen to the brown thrasher” doesn’t come across as well as “Listen to the Mockingbird.”
Once located on its perch it is recognized by its rufous head, back and tail, heavily dark streaked white breast, and buff colored belly. The streaking can be irregular and spotty. The bird characteristically points its tail down while singing.
I usually watch them through binoculars and the feature that catches my eye is the thrasher’s piercing pale yellow eye. It seems to bore a hole straight through you. A laser of eyes. The name thrasher is believed to be derived from the word thrush, although it is not a thrush. Thrashers are related to the mockingbirds and catbirds and found in the family Mimidae. I think of thrasher as describing their feeding behavior of “thrashing” their head side to side to move leaf litter to find food.
Something I really admire about brown thrashers is their ability to recognize brown-headed cowbird eggs and take action. Cowbirds do not make nests of their own, but lay their eggs in other birds’ nests. They often lay them in the thrashers’ nests and the thrashers are clever enough to chuck most of the cowbird eggs out. Possibly they recognize the darker, more heavily spotted cowbird eggs. American robins are good at getting rid of cowbird eggs, so cheers to them too.
There is frequent debate online about whether we should interfere and remove cowbird eggs from nests. Legally, cowbirds are a native species so their eggs are protected. It irks us that cowbirds are parasites to other birds, but that is how nature works for this species. If we are lawful and respect the cowbird we leave the eggs alone and let the often much smaller bird feed the parasite chick.
Brown thrashers are mostly insect-eaters in the first part of the spring and then switch over to berry eating in the summer and fall. If there are leftover rose hips on the multiflora roses they will also eat these in the spring.
The photo shows the thrasher in a large tangle of multiflora cane. For the winter they migrate south and concentrate in areas of Texas. Brown thrashers are found in the eastern part of the country and there are other thrashers such as Bendire’s, curve-billed and others out West. I have seen several kinds in southern Arizona along river bank thickets. They too have the piercing yellow eyes. So move over brash mockingbird, the brown thrasher may be shier than you, but he is bigger and the true top songster of our bird world.