We had left the boisterous crowds of Washington, D.C. to the surge of summer tourists, and the next morning were 100 miles away, walking down a narrow road that hugs the Nanticoke River. Even though the homes were scattered and few, the setting was far from quiet.
Wrens alternately sung and scolded from the hedgerow. A pair of cardinals performed a lovely duet, while grackles and red-winged blackbirds called nonstop. The osprey gave a piercing alarm call when I walked too close to its tree. Sharp wheeps of flycatchers came from the forest edge. Overhead, laughing gulls added a raucous note. In the distance, a crowing rooster added a final note of semi-domestication to the ensemble.
Nature's complex soundtrack kept me busy trying to sort out the birds taking advantage of prime feeding time. In the drainage ditch along the road's edge, a brown bird is swinging its bill back and forth through the leaf litter. It seems to be the only bird not vocalizing.
As big as a blue jay, the bird is a rust-tinged brown on top over a white breast and belly that are streaked with black. Its long, rufous tail extends straight back as it continues to thrash through the loose plant matter. The bill is mostly black and slightly decurved while its eye is bright yellow.
This silent, hard-working bird is a brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum). The irony brings a smile to my face. This quiet bird has one of the most extensive vocal repertoires of any avian species. Ornithologists say that brown thrashers can sing thousands of different songs. Evidently, searching for breakfast took precedent over singing at the time.
Brown thrashers belong to the same family as mockingbirds and catbirds. All three are skilled at imitating the songs of other birds They can even imitate a wide variety of other sounds. Their Latin family name is mimidae. While there are a number of other thrashers in the U.S. West, the mockingbird, catbird and brown thrasher are the only mimids reliably seen in the East.
The extraordinary variety of songs would seem to make vocal identification difficult. In truth, the vast library exhibited by these birds is diagnostic itself. No other eastern birds have such extensive songbooks.
Even identification among the three species is relatively easy-just count the number of times each song is repeated. The mockingbird usually sings each phrase four or more times. The catbird will utter each phase just once, interspersing its song with its familiar catlike meows.
The brown thrasher sings each phrase twice. Unlike its fellow mimids, the brown thrasher pauses between each phrase.
While mockingbirds are ubiquitous in the suburban United States and catbirds are seen and heard across much of the country, the brown thrasher is much more secretive. It inhabits hedgerows and thickets, and generally likes to skulk in the low dense brush where it can be hard to see.
The best opportunity to see these birds is while they are feeding, which is exactly what I'm doing.
The aggressive rooting through loose vegetation can best be described as thrashing about. The rather large, sturdy bill is perfect for flipping leaves and twigs aside in search of insects, especially beetles. Brown thrashers will also eat seeds, fruits and even an occasional salamander or lizard.
The breeding range of brown thrashers extends from south-central Canada across to New England and down to the Gulf of Mexico.
They are short-distance migrants. While the birds in the northernmost reaches of its breeding range will drop down into more temperate climates during winter months, many of the birds from the Chesapeake region and south are year-round residents.
They lay four to six eggs, which hatch in about 12 days. Less than two weeks later, the chicks will fledge. Like mockingbirds, brown thrashers are extremely territorial around the nest and will attack people who wander too close.
I kept my distance, enjoying the sight of this bird as it continued to send plant detritus flying in pursuit of its breakfast. Finally eating its fill, the bird took a short flight to the nearby hedge. Moments later, I am treated to the brown thrasher's two-phrase song. The rest of the avian orchestra is still going strong, but I can easily distinguish its newest member.
The polyglot babble of D.C. has given way to the varied voices of woods and fields. In the District, my thoughts race to keep pace with an international metropolis. On the Nanticoke, the varied songs of the brown thrasher replace the complex sounds of the city and my mind was at rest. This is music for the heart, not the head.