Minnesota Outdoors: Brown Thrashers are interesting and secretive birds

Blane Klemek

    One of our most striking looking songbirds is a bird that many of us see only glimpses of in the dense understory of deciduous woodlands and thickets along the edges of backyards and fields. Named for both its color and, likely erroneously, thrasher, the brown thrasher is not a thrush at all, as its believed thrasher is a derivative of the word thrush.

    Irrespective of the name thrasher, brown thrashers are members of the family Mimidae, not Turdidae, which thrushes, bluebirds, and robins are members of. Indeed, brown thrashers are related to the northern mockingbird, gray catbird, and several other species of North American thrashers. Of the eight species of New World thrashers, the brown thrasher is the only thrasher that occurs in Minnesota.

    Brown thrashers are interesting and secretive birds. Though the male’s song is beautiful and boisterous and normally sung from a treetop, more often is the case that a thrasher will be heard and not seen. These rather large songbirds would rather skulk amongst thickets than hop about on lawns like a backyard robin.

    Fairly large in size (slightly smaller than blue jays), brown thrashers are slim birds overall with long proportions throughout—long tail, long beak, long legs. In fact, its tail alone is roughly half the length of its body. In total length a brown thrasher is anywhere from nine inches to nearly a foot long from the tip of its beak to the tip of its tail. Wingspans measure on average about 12 inches.

    A favorite feature of all members of the mockingbird and thrasher family are their songs and calls. Brown thrashers, mimics they are, are accomplished songsters. A song that’s often described as “rich, melodious, sweet, and clear”, one thing to note is that the brown thrasher enjoys repeating himself. His musical phrases are repeated two to three times as he goes through his vocal repertoire of phrases.

    Once heard, the variable song of a brown thrasher can be easily remembered through the mnemonic, “Chuck it, chuck it. Hoe it, hoe it” and so on, or “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.” I’m sure you can think of other birdsongs that we remember this way, too. Think, for example, the white-throated sparrow and its “Old Sam Peabody” or “Oh sweet Canada” song.  

    Other distinctive characteristics of brown thrashers are their brown-streaked white breasts, white wing bars, yellow eyes, and slightly decurved beaks. A decurved beak is simply a beak that curves downward. The long, decurved beaks of the brown thrasher—all thrashers actually—are used to extract insects and other foods from tough to reach places. A species of thrasher of the desert southwest, the curve-billed thrasher, have especially curved beaks that enable the birds to access the recesses of cacti and other thorny plants for out-of-the-way insects.

    The diet of a brown thrasher, like their song, is variable, too. Considered an omnivore, brown thrashers take advantage of what’s seasonally available, be it all kinds of fruits, nuts, and seeds to almost any type of insect be they hard or soft-bodied, crawling or flying. Brown thrashers have also been known to capture and eat small snakes, frogs, and lizards and skinks, too.      

    While most brown thrashers here in northern Minnesota have completed nesting and have raised their offspring to fledglings by now, some pairs are busy attempting or raising a second brood, as many songbirds tend to do. Both male and female brown thrashers search for nest sites together within dense thickets. In a few days to about a week, the pair builds their cup-nest comprised of twigs, grass, stems, rootlets, and other plant material. Anywhere from two to six eggs are laid.

    Catching glimpses of the secretive brown thrasher is always a treat. Knowing that we have such unique songbirds that migrate here every season and stay for a few months each year is testament to what Minnesota’s rich bounty of resources means to wild birds as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

    Blane enjoys getting feedback from readers and hearing about your stories from Minnesota’s great outdoors. Email him at bklemek@yahoo.com.