For the Birds Radio Program: Brown Thrasher

Original Air Date: June 20, 1988

The state bird of Georgia is a master of mimicry. (3:42)

Audio missing


(Recording of a Brown Thrasher)

A few species of birds are recognized by just about everyone–birds like pigeons, sparrows, crows, and jays. Other species–like LeConte’s Sparrows, Connecticut Warblers, and Alder Flycatchers, are recognized only by fairly serious bird watchers. But many species are in between–common enough to be known by noticing people, but shy or secretive enough that many people never know they exist. One bird in this category is the Brown Thrasher.

The Brown Thrasher is a close relative of the mockingbird. It’s capable of imitating just about any bird song or call, although it doesn’t waste its time on as many human sound- effects, like screeching tires and chain saws, as mockers do. It sings from the tip top of a tree or shrub, and even in silhouette it’s recognizable, singing with its head held high and its tail drooping. Its song is a series of short, musical phrases, usually sung in pairs. Farmers figure the Brown Thrasher is giving them advice, and they translate the song as, “Drop it, drop it, cover it, cover it, pull it up, pull it up.” People who spend more time on the telephone than in the fields translate the song as “Hello, hello, yes, yes, who is this? who is this? I should say, I should say, how’s that? how’s that?”

(Recording of a Brown Thrasher)

Brown Thrashers live in dry, brushy tangles. For some reason, they’re more shy and secretive in the eastern coastal states than elsewhere, but even here in the Northland they usually keep under cover except while they’re singing. In the Midwest they usually nest lower than 10 feet up in a small tree or shrub, but in the arid western states they often nest right on the ground.

They’re often found noisily tossing leaves aside to uncover their food. They eat a variety of insects, including army worms and tent caterpillars. Unfortunately, nothing eats enough army worms to suit most Northlanders, but Brown Thrashers at least do their part. They also eat frogs, small snakes, sowbugs, lots of garden pests, acorns, and a variety of berries. They don’t eat bird seed or suet, but can often be attracted to feeders with grape jelly. I plop out a few spoonfuls in heavy plastic cereal bowls, which I set on flat feeders or on my picnic table, and so I often get to see these attractive birds.

The Brown Thrasher is easy to recognize, with its reddish brown back, its heavily streaked white breast, its long tail, and its golden eye. It’s the state bird of Georgia. It’s recovered well from DDT, and, since it winters in the southern United States, it hasn’t suffered at all from the destruction of the tropical rain forest. Individuals can live for a long time–one banded bird was captured alive and released when it was 9 years, 8 months old, and another when it was 12 years, 10 months old. But most of them die their first year–that’s why the species normally has two batches of babies each summer, but doesn’t get any more common. As Joel Carl Welty said, “On all sides and at all times, birds are surrounded by threats to their lives.”

(Recording of a Brown Thrasher)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”