A Month for Songs

The air is like a butterfly
With frail blue wings.
The happy earth looks at the sky
And sings.

~Joyce Kilmer, Spring

Sipping my coffee with the cool air coming in the window before sunrise this morning, I can hear the first songs of the new day – a northern cardinal, a late spring peeper, and my favorite, the melodious call of a wood thrush. Last evening, before the storm, others were singing – the yellow-throated warbler that may be building a nest in the yard, Carolina chickadees, a summer tanager. Over the past few years, I have unfortunately lost some ability to hear high frequency sounds, so I am missing the calls of many other spring migrants, unless they are very close. Melissa tells me there are many black-throated blues out back, a northern parula, and a pair of hooded warblers down the hill. But, I still hear plenty in these woods, and elsewhere as I travel. It is the season of song, it is spring. The urge to sing is strong. During a slight break in the storm last evening, a wood thrush commenced calling, even though it continued to rain and blow. One of the joys of spring bird-watching is to hear these songs, and to see the songsters in action. Last weekend, on a trip to the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, we were treated to a couple of energetic vocal displays, the kind that stick with you, and imprint the melodies in your head.

brown thrasher singing 1

Brown thrasher singing on top of a sweet gum (click photos to enlarge)

Early in the day, there was a lot of stopping and listening for warblers (at least by the others in the car), and prairie warblers seemed to be everywhere in the front half of the refuge that is dominated by thick pocosin vegetation. Later that afternoon, we heard the loud call of a brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum), a member of the mimic thrush family that includes mockingbirds, catbirds, and thrashers. Normally a secretive bird, foraging in thick vegetation, male brown thrashers change their habits during the breeding season and let forth with a series of loud notes from atop a high, conspicuous perch.


brown thrasher singing 2

Every time we drove by his corner, the thrasher was singing

We drove by a clump of trees at an intersection of refuge roads a few times before stopping to find the singer. There, atop the tallest tree limb, was a brown thrasher belting out his melodious song. Distinguishing the varied songs of a gray catbird, a northern mockingbird, and a brown thrasher can be tricky (all three species occur on the refuge). But, the thrasher seems to sing louder than the others, and usually repeats a phrase in its song twice, whereas the mockingbird usually repeats three times, and the catbird only once. Brown thrashers are known to have a repertoire of over 1,000 songs, with some researchers saying it exceeds 3,000 song phrases, giving them the largest playlist of any North American bird. This guy was certainly proud of his singing, and probably continued long after we finally moved on.

red-winged blackbird  in marsh

Red-winged blackbirds were vying for attention in the marsh impoundment

Late in the day, we passed by the large marsh making up one of the refuge’s moist soil units. Managers seasonally control the water level in this impoundment to maximize the production of food and access for wintering waterfowl. This time of year, the water is shallow, with abundant marsh and wetland vegetation, making it an ideal place for many species of birds. We saw American bitterns, lots of great blue herons, and heard several king rails. But the birds of the hour were the red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus). Males were everywhere in the marsh, flying about, chasing other males, and establishing or defending territories.

red-winged blackbird singing

They would land on a tall reed, and burst into…song?

While we watched, several males were displaying their classic behavior – alight on a prominent perch (usually a tall reed); lean forward, puff up, spread your tail feathers and arch your wings, and let loose with a loud conk-la-ree! The most prominent visual aspect of this display is showing the bright red shoulder patch on each wing, their so-called epaulettes.

red-winged blackbird singing 1

Older males tend to have brighter red patches

red-winged blackbird singing with membrane showing

I noticed they usually lower the nictitating membrane on the eye during part of the call

red-winged blackbird singing 2

It may not be that musical, but it is one heck of a display

I wrote about the displays of red-winged blackbirds in an earlier post. Studies have shown that displaying epaulettes can be used to both defend a territory from other males, and to attract a female. In a series of experiments, two researchers explained some of the intricate aspects of this behavior in what they termed the “coverable badge hypothesis“. In one test, they temporarily dyed the epaulettes of some males to a black color and found this reduced the social status of these birds. In another study, by observing males that already had established a territory, and then watching newcomers into that territory, they noticed that the intruders usually conceal their epaulettes (badges) and leave without a fight when the owners display theirs. This is believed to help reduce fights between birds that can result in injury.

It certainly is a display I enjoy watching, and a bird I find fascinating during the nesting season, and in winter, when tens of thousands may flock together on the refuge. I suppose it is no surprise then that their song is the ringtone on my phone. Now, if only I could make it flash red when you call…





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.