Hear, here! Brown thrasher’s songs alert you to its presence

An adult brown thrasher, left, stands by a juvenile in Virginia. The younger bird’s eye will turn the characteristic yellow as it gets older. (cbgrfx123 / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)

A light rain was falling as dawn struggled to life. The sun didn’t so much rise as reluctantly brighten the landscape.

I was tired and a little cranky that this endless rain might confine us indoors for yet another day. I put the kettle on to boil and found myself staring vacantly out the kitchen window at the farmhouse’s backyard.

Ignoring the rain, a bird was busy hopping about, flipping through leaf litter in search of breakfast. The gray morning made it difficult to distinguish the rufous color on the bird’s back and wings, but its behavior made the identification easy: This was a brown thrasher.

Brown thrashers (Toxostoma rufum) are one of those rare birds whose name is accurately descriptive of both its color and its behavior. Standing on longish legs, thrashers are a handsome reddish brown up top, from their caps to their long tails. Thin black-and-white wingbars are visible. Underneath, the birds are white, with black streaks across their chests giving way to all-white bellies.

The face is a mottled buffy brown with intense yellow eyes. The formidable bill is perfectly designed to thrash through detritus on the ground as the bird hunts for larvae, beetles, grubs, worms and the like.

Boldly and brightly colored, thrashers can be surprisingly hard to see because their favorite habitat is dense undergrowth. Here in the Eastern United States, that means the understory of forests. In the Midwest, you’ll find brown thrashers in thickets, hedgerows and scrubby fields.

The kettle started whistling, but I was engrossed in watching this thrasher hop about. It was more effective at waking me up than the mug of tea would be.

Brown thrashers are short-distance migrants. Their permanent range centers on most of the U.S. Southeast. Come early spring, a number of these thrashers will head north as far as New York and west as far as Montana. They spread unevenly across the entire Mississippi watershed.

We start seeing brown thrashers in Maryland in early April. By mid-May, the entire Chesapeake Watershed is covered.

In the fall, migratory thrashers rejoin their resident brethren back in the Southeastern states.

Like many avian species, brown thrashers are nocturnal migrants. That makes them susceptible to crashes into buildings, broadcasting towers and other artificially lighted structures. The night lights disorient the migrants with all-too-frequent fatal results.

Brown thrashers are in the same avian family (Mimidae) as mockingbirds and gray catbirds. Like their cousins, they are excellent songsters and readily imitate other birds’ songs.

Ornithologists tell us that a single brown thrasher may sing more than 1,000 different songs. That’s one of the largest vocal repertoires of any North American bird.

Although they spend most of their time on or near the ground, thrashers look for high perches when they feel the urge to sing. It’s often the easiest time to see them.

As many people recognize, mockingbirds tend to sing brief song segments four times in a row: e.g., tseet-tseet-tseet-tseet; toodalee-toodalee-toodalee-toodalee, etc. Brown thrashers can be recognized by their habit of repeating each segment twice: cheep-cheep; seeme-seeme, and so on. Catbirds usually do single segments, often ending with their namesake meow.

Brown thrashers build their nests low in trees or shrubs, sometimes even on the ground. Both parents incubate the young and care for the nestlings. They are especially vigilant around the nest and will attack any intruder — they have even been known to draw blood from people who get too close to their young.

Typically, thrashers have clutches ranging from two to six eggs. They incubate the eggs for two weeks and the fledglings are ready to leave the nest just 10–12 days after hatching. In the southern portion of their range, brown thrashers may have two broods annually. Farther north and west, they usually have just one.

Our changing landscape has been hard on thrashers. Although the population is still large, it has declined by an estimated 41 percent since 1966. The problem has been the loss of appropriate habitat.

Forest edges allow ample light in to foster the growth of thick understories of scrub. Today, those edges are being lost. Forest tracts are being clear-cut for expanding development.

In the second half of the last century, many family farms painstakingly carved out of forest lands were abandoned. These farms in the most rural parts of the watershed weren’t developed. The forests gradually filled back in, taking those edges with them.

For more than a decade, several friends have joined us in renting the farmhouse where I was standing. The owner recently put the entire farm up for sale. We renters may lose a cherished rural retreat, but the impact on those two birds in the backyard may be more profound.

Complex legal, cultural and economic factors will ultimately decide the fate of the farm. It is a process that is repeated countless times annually across the watershed.

The fate of the farm — and the birds — was out of my hands. For now, all I could do was watch and pray for sunshine, both literally and figuratively.

Mike Burke, a Bay Journal columnist, is an amateur naturalist based in Maryland, having retired from a career that toggled between Capitol Hill and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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