Garden Birds – Brown Thrasher

Perhaps, if we had more neglected brush heaps and tangles of unkempt shrubbery and vines about our grounds, we might tempt the thrasher to be
more sociable and nest near our homes.

~Dr. W.G. Erwin in Bent’s Life Histories of North American Birds

Brown Trasher vertical

A Brown Thrasher sitting on top of a tangle of grape vines (click photos to enlarge)

I see Brown Thrashers all year in North Carolina, but, in winter, I find them more often in the Coastal Plain, rather than around my home. But, a few weeks ago, a male Brown Thrasher appeared in the garden and began singing from near the top of a nearby ash tree. His is a beautiful, varied song, befitting a member of the Mimic Thrush family, which also includes the Gray Catbird and Northern Mockingbird. Of the three, I think the song of the Brown Thrasher is the most pleasant to the ear – clear, and often, melodious. They are said to have a songbook of over 1,000 song types. Brown Thrashers repeat their song phrases twice, while Gray Catbirds only once, and a Northern Mockingbird, three or more times in a row.

Brown Thrasher on branch

Brown Thrasher on branch near the grape vine

In addition to their paired song phrases, Brown Thrashers are easily identified by their large size (up to 12 inches), long tail, rufous-colored back and wings, and a speckled breast.

Brown Thrasher on branch back view

They have two whitish wing bars and a long, powerful, slightly down-curved beak.

Brown Thrasher eye close up

But what I notice most, and love to see in low-angle light, is that intense yellow, glaring eye. A friend came over recently and as we sat and watched birds out by the garden fence, he commented on the Brown Thrasher feeding nearby. If they were 12 feet long instead of 12 inches, we would all be very afraid of them as they go running about, thrashing the earth with that giant beak, and staring with that intense yellow eye. He said they remind him of some sort of small predatory dinosaur.

Brown Thrasher on ground

Brown Thrashers spend much of their time on the ground

When not feeding, the Brown Thrasher at my garden is either singing from a prominent perch, or skulking in a thicket or the tangle of vines on the fence. It comes to my suet feeder, but forages mainly on or near the ground, eating primarily insects this time of year, supplemented with fruit of various sorts, with an occasional small lizard or other large prey thrown in. One early observer described their feeding behavior in this way…

It apparently seldom scratches for its food, as do the fox sparrow and the towhee, but uses its long, strong bill much as a haymaker uses a pitchfork in spreading hay; thus, with powerful sidewise strokes, it sends the leaves flying in all directions, and then stops to pick up what desirable morsels it finds beneath them.

The common name, thrasher, most likely is derived from this feeding behavior, although others have suggested it may be from the way a bird will often thrash a large grub or other insect on the ground to subdue it. And one writer noted that he had been thrashed by one of these formidable songbirds when he approached its nest. In fact, I saw several descriptions of how some Brown Thrashers will valiantly defend a nest against humans, dogs, and predators such as snakes, often drawing blood with jabs of that sturdy bill.

Brown Thrasher near suet cage

Brown Thrasher giving me the eye before disappearing into the grape vines

I have not experienced this aggression even though a pair nested in the grape vines on the garden fence two years ago. When I was out working in the garden, often only a couple of feet away, the bird on the nest would simply stay put, perhaps knowing they were safe in an impenetrable mesh of sinuous stems. But, I don’t think I will be reaching in there to test their resolve should they nest again this year. I can’t get that image of a small glaring dinosaur out of my head.


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