By Casey First
The Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) is a songbird about the size of a Robin that can be identified by rusty brown and cinnamon coloring on its backside and dark chocolatey streaks on its palish white belly. Belonging to the family Mimidae, which includes Mockingbirds and New World Catbirds, Brown Thrashers have a slender build with yellowish eyes and a greyish face. They are easily identified by the Wren-like tail that is cocked upright and is almost two-thirds the size of their body. They have long, thick legs common to ground-foraging birds and a slightly curved bill to aid in scavenging.
This native North American bird can usually be found in dense bushes or tangled thickets using its bill to overturn leaves and dig in search of food. Their breeding grounds stretch from the lower part of Canada to the Midwest and the eastern US. They are not typically seen west of Texas.
In WNC, this thrasher can be seen occasionally during a mild winter, but typically migrates to the coastal plains or lower elevations like the Piedmont until spring.
Brown Thrashers are omnivorous, getting more than half their diet from insects like beetles, earthworms, cicadas and even the occasional frog or lizard. They have a fondness for acorns and will use their bill to pound at the shell to get to the meat inside.
Because of their preference for a more densely covered habitat, it can be tricky to locate this bird with the naked eye. They are shy by nature, and a backyard bird feeder that is open and low to the ground is one way to lure them closer. Try offering foods like peanuts, sunflower seeds and suet. Often though, they will trot from the bush to clean up fallen seeds under high feeders before retreating to safety.
These birds have rich and melodious songs. Like the Mockingbird, the Brown Thrasher mimics with great precision and has a catalog of more than 1,000 song types. Their call consists of a few repeated tones that sound like a smacking kiss. The male can often be spotted high on a tree calling others or serenading the surrounding area with his song.
Like most other songbirds, Brown Thrashers mate in early spring and are usually done with nesting by late summer. Male and female birds work together to build their large, cup-shaped nests made of twigs and lined with fine and softer material.
Some of the fiercest defenders of their young, Brown Thrashers can become aggressive staving off predators from their eggs and nestlings. They have evolved to take on this defensive nature since close to three-quarters of their nests get ravaged by snakes and outdoor cats, causing a high mortality rate. The good news is that their numbers are declining slower than other songbirds even though their preferred habitat of shrub and thicket is at risk because of clear cutting and urbanization. The next time you are out walking in the woods or heavier brushed areas, be on the lookout, or should I say listen, for what many fittingly call the “brown thrush” due to a similarity in appearance.
Casey First is owner of Wild Birds Unlimited, located at 946 Merrimon Avenue, Suite 120, in Asheville. To learn more, visit NorthAsheville.wbu.com. Stephanie Sipp is a professional nature illustrator and educator who creates joyful images of animals, birds, flowers and places celebrated by followers regionally and online.