Brown Thrasher

Toxostoma rufum

Brown_Thrasher_2-26-16.jpg

Photo of a brown thrasher perched amid tree branches.
The brown thrasher is related to the mockingbird and catbird. Like them, it mimics songs of other birds.
Jim Rathert
Family

Mimidae (mimids or “mimic thrushes”) in the order Passeriformes

Description

Adult upperparts are reddish brown, with gray cheeks, pale eyes, and a long, downcurved bill. Underparts are white to buff, with heavy dark brown streaks on the breast and belly. The song is a loud, complex series of one- or few-note phrases that are repeated 2 or 3 times; Thoreau, planting his bean field, heard it as “Drop it, drop it — cover it up, cover it up — pull it up, pull it up, pull it up.” The call is a loud smack, much like a quick kissing sound.

Similar species: The wood thrush is chunkier, more robin shaped, with large, dark eyes, a spotted (not streaked) breast, and a much shorter tail. The gray catbird and northern mockingbird are differently colored but they, too, sing “mimic” songs. But the mockingbird’s song is varied, sometimes harsh, with 1 to many phrases that are usually repeated 3–5 times before singing the next. The gray catbird’s song is a confusing jumble of many different phrases, without apparent repetition, often including a rather loud meeoow.

Size

Length: 11½ inches (tip of bill to tip of tail).

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Photo of a brown thrasher foraging in soil.
Brown Thrasher
Brown thrasher foraging on the ground.

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Photo of a brown thrasher foraging on the ground.
Brown Thrasher
Brown thrashers are reddish brown above, whitish with heavy dark brown streaks below. Note the long, curved bill.

Brown_Thrasher_In_Tree_2-26-16.jpg

Photo of a brown thrasher in a tree.
Brown Thrasher
The song of a brown thrasher is a loud, complex series of one- or few-note phrases that are repeated 2 or 3 times.

Brown_Thrasher_Lurking_In_Tree_2-26-16.jpg

Photo of a brown thrasher lurking in a tree.
Brown Thrasher
It can be surprisingly difficult to see brown thrashers as they lurk amid tangles of vegetation.

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Photo of a brown thrasher walking on snow.
Brown Thrasher
In winter, look for brown thrashers in tangles and thickets, usually near shrubs and vines bearing fruits.

Brown_Thrasher_On_Branch_2-26-16.jpg

Photo of a brown thrasher perched on a branch.
Brown Thrasher
Adults fearlessly protect their nests, striking people, dogs, snakes, and other brown thrashers that come too near.
Habitat and conservation

Common summer resident in open areas with thick shrubs, including woodland edges, roadsides, gardens, parks, and landscaped yards. Rare in winter in tangles and thickets, usually near shrubs and vines bearing fruits. It can be surprisingly difficult to see them, as they lurk amid tangles of vegetation. When they’re singing from high treetops, they are easier to locate.

Foods

Brown thrashers forage on a wide variety of insects, spiders, lizards, snakes, and crayfish. They commonly forage on the ground, stalking and hopping about, sweeping their bills back and forth through leaf litter. They also eat berries such wild grapes, holly, pokeweed, sumac, and elderberry.

Distribution in Missouri

Statewide.

Status

Common summer resident; rare winter resident. For decades, populations have been declining across North America. Their numbers and range had probably increased in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with the rise of agriculture and increase in shrubby forest-border habitat, but the current trend has been for huge agricultural tracts with few forest edges. They also perish when they collide with communication towers as they migrate, get hit by cars, and eat insects treated with pesticides.

Life cycle

Cup nests are built low in trees or in shrubs, of twigs, dry leaves, grasses, and similar materials. A clutch comprises 2–6 eggs, which are incubated for about 2 weeks. Upon hatching, the young are helpless, but are able to leave the nest in less than 2 weeks. There can be 1 or 2 broods a year. Adults fearlessly protect their nests, striking people, dogs, snakes, and other brown thrashers that come too near.

Human connections

Thrashers eat quantities of troublesome insects, and they sing lustily and long. The brown thrasher is the state bird of Georgia, and Atlanta’s professional ice hockey team in 1999–2011 was named for the bird. You have to admit that “the Thrashers” is a cool name for a sports team!

Ecosystem connections

Thrashers are omnivores. Snakes frequently eat the eggs and young of brown thrashers, and adults are often eaten by hawks, owls, and cats. Brown cowbirds often parasitically lay their eggs in brown thrasher nests, but the thrashers usually eject the foreign eggs.