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Brown Thrasher

Toxostoma rufum ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: MIMIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

It can be tricky to glimpse a Brown Thrasher in a tangled mass of shrubbery, and once you do you may wonder how such a boldly patterned, gangly bird could stay so hidden. Brown Thrashers wear a somewhat severe expression thanks to their heavy, slightly downcurved bill and staring yellow eyes, and they are the only thrasher species east of Texas. Brown Thrashers are exuberant singers, with one of the largest repertoires of any North American songbird.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
9.1–11.8 in
23–30 cm
Wingspan
11.4–12.6 in
29–32 cm
Weight
2.2–3.1 oz
61–89 g
Relative Size
Slightly smaller than a Blue Jay; slightly larger than a Northern Mockingbird.
Other Names
  • Moqueur roux (French)
  • Cuitlacoche rojizo (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • The Brown Thrasher is considered a short-distance migrant, but two individuals have been recorded in Europe: one in England and another in Germany.
  • An aggressive defender of its nest, the Brown Thrasher is known to strike people and dogs hard enough to draw blood.
  • Brown Thrashers are accomplished songsters that may sing more than 1,100 different song types and include imitations of other birds, including Chuck-will’s-widows, Wood Thrushes, and Northern Flickers.
  • At least one early naturalist thought the Brown Thrasher’s song was underappreciated, writing “Much of the [acclaim] which has fallen to the Mockingbird is really due to the unperceived efforts of the Brown Thrasher. It is the opinion of many ornithologists that the song… is richer, fuller, and definitely more melodious than that of polyglottis” (the Northern Mockingbird).
  • Both males and females help incubate the eggs and feed the young. Nestlings sometimes leave the nest fully feathered within nine days of hatching—earlier than either of their smaller relatives, the Northern Mockingbird and Gray Catbird. Shrubby habitats are popular hideouts for nest predators, which may explain why the thrashers fledge so quickly for birds of their size.
  • Brown Thrashers are the largest common host of parasitic Brown-headed Cowbirds. The thrashers do put up some resistance, often rejecting cowbird eggs that are laid in their nests.
  • The oldest Brown Thrasher on record was at least 11 years, 11 months old. It was recaptured and then re-released at a Florida banding station.

Habitat


Scrub

In eastern North America, Brown Thrashers nest in thickets, hedgerows, forest edges, and overgrown clearings in deciduous forest. Farther west, in the Great Plains, they breed in fencerows, shelterbelts, and woody draws. They’re often found in woodlands with cottonwood, willow, dogwood, American plum, saltcedar, hawthorn, pitch pine, or scrub oak. On rare occasions they breed in backyards and gardens. Brown Thrashers winter in the southern part of their breeding range and also move into nonbreeding habitat throughout central Texas. They are the only thrasher east of the Rocky Mountains and central Texas.

Food


Omnivore

Brown Thrashers eat mostly insects and other arthropods along with some fruits, seeds, and nuts. They typically feed on the ground, sweeping their bills through the leaf litter and soil with quick, sideways motions. They also forage in clusters of dead leaves on trees, eat fruit right off of berry bushes, glean seeds from weed stems, and sometimes catch insects in the air. The animal portion of their diet includes many kinds of beetles, along with grubs, wire-worms, army worms, cutworms, tent caterpillars, gypsy-moth caterpillars, leafhoppers, treehoppers, cicadas, grasshoppers, crickets, wasps, bees, harvestmen, sowbugs, lizards, snakes, and tree frogs. The fruit portion of their diet includes blueberry, huckleberry, holly, elderberries, pokeberries, hackberries, Virginia creeper, sour gum, bayberry, sumac, raspberry, currant, grape, cherry, and strawberry.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–6 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Egg Length
1–1.1 in
2.6–2.7 cm
Egg Width
0.7–0.8 in
1.9–2 cm
Incubation Period
10–14 days
Nestling Period
9–13 days
Egg Description
Glossy pale blue, pale greenish blue, or white, with many red-brown speckles.
Condition at Hatching
Eyes closed; pink skin with scattered tufts of gray-white down.
Nest Description

Males and females collaborate on the nest, a bulky cup made of twigs, dead leaves, thin bark, grass stems, and well-cleaned rootlets. The inside of the cup is a couple of inches deep and 3.5 inches across. If they start early in the season, the pair will spend up to a week building a nest, whereas later in the season they may complete one in just a few days.

Nest Placement

Shrub

The male and female both help select the nest site, usually low in a tree or thorny shrub. They use forsythia, privet, gooseberry, sumac, Osage-orange, multiflora rose, eastern redcedar, elm, and honey locust. Occasionally they nest right on the ground.

Brown Thrasher Nest Image 1
© 2004 Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Behavior


Ground Forager

Brown Thrashers spend most of their time near or on the ground, walking, running, or hopping. When disturbed at the nest, they drop to the ground and dart into dense cover. They feed by sweeping their long bills through leaf litter to uncover insects and other invertebrates. They are slow, short-distance fliers with a distinctive jerky, fluttering flight style. Brown Thrashers are monogamous during a breeding season, but it isn’t known whether pairs stay together from year to year. They breed in such dense vegetation that little is known of their courtship; the few observations that exist suggest that a courting pair presents each other with twigs or dead leaves, after which the male may briefly chase the female before mating. They defend territories of variable size, and they are very aggressive toward intruding Brown Thrashers and toward potential nest predators, which include snakes (racers as well as garter, king, rat, bull, and milk snakes) and dogs. Sometimes Brown Thrashers strike predators with their bills hard enough to draw blood.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Brown Thrashers are fairly common birds but their numbers have been declining for the last several decades. According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, between 1966 and 2010 populations declined throughout their range by an estimated 1.1 percent per year, resulting in a cumulative loss of 39 percent. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 4.9 million, with 100 percent living in the U.S. and 8 percent spending some part of the year in Canada. They rate an 11 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2012 Watch List, although they are a U.S.-Canada Stewardship species. Brown Thrashers probably increased their range during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as humans cleared forests for agriculture, suppressed fires in the Great Plains, and put out bird feeders. However, their shrubby habitat is now declining throughout the eastern U.S. as fields and forests regrow or are cleared altogether. Competition with Northern Mockingbirds may be affecting their numbers in northern parts of their range. Brown Thrashers often die in collisions with television towers (during migration) or with cars (since they often occur in roadside habitat). They can become unintended casualties of pesticides that people use to control insects, including organophosphates used in pecan plantations, dieldrin used on fields, and heptachlor used to combat Japanese beetles.

Credits

Range Map Help

Brown Thrasher Range Map
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Migration

Short-distance, partial migrant. In the winter, Brown Thrashers move out of the northern part of their breeding range and into the southeastern region, where resident thrashers also stay year round. Some northern birds move southwest into central Texas, outside of the normal breeding range. They migrate at night, either individually or in small groups.

Backyard Tips

Brown Thrashers may come to feeders on or near the ground with dense cover close by. You can also attract them by planting shrubs that produce berries.

Find This Bird

To find Brown Thrashers, keep your eyes and ears alert around tangled thickets, hedgerows or forest edges in central and eastern North America. Brown Thrashers are secretive, and hard to spot in their favorite spots under dense vegetation, but they can make a lot of noise as they rummage through the leaf litter. During spring and early summer, males climb higher to sing from exposed perches. Listen for a song with a pattern of a Northern Mockingbird, but with phrases repeated only in pairs rather than in triplets.