For the Birds Radio Program: Mork and Mindy the Baby Brown Thrashers
This summer I find myself the emergency caretaker of two nestling Brown Thrashers that were rescued at the last moment from a wood chipper at the John Duss Conservatory of Music. Their nest was apparently in a shrub that was trimmed and chipped. Fortunately, the babies were discovered before that gruesome scene from Fargo was reenacted. They were close enough to fledging that I decided to let them stay in my yard as they develop the skills they need to survive in the world of Brown Thrashers. My son Tommy named them Mork and Mindy.
I’ve never held a Brown Thrasher before, and never seen a nestling. Although still fuzzy with a tiny stump of a tail, they were easy to identify with their rich brown feathers, contrasting white wing bars, and clean black streaks on the whitish breast. Baby Brown Thrashers act a little like baby Blue Jays, staying close to one another, studying the world curiously and having a surprising intelligence. The only difference is that they are much noisier, making constant little peeps to one another and louder begging sounds to me.
They quickly figured out that I was the one feeding them now, and within hours started fluttering up to me when they were hungry. The first day I had them they were clearly still nestlings, sitting rooted to one spot for hours at a time. But by the next day they seemed larger and fluffier, and were suddenly hopping around. When I had to bring them indoors, I put them in a deep industrial plastic bucket, but by the third day they were fluttering out as fast as I could put them in.
Their natural diet is mostly insects, spiders, and other small invertebrates, but since the only wild insects I seem to be able to find this year are army worms, I’ve been giving them a combination of meal worms and a baby parrot hand-feeding mixture designed to provide the critical nutrition needs of growing baby birds. They eat voraciously, this being a critical period in their physical development. And at the same time that their bodies are growing, their brain is also developing by leaps and bounds. Scrutinizing the sights and sounds around them is critical so they can learn about the world they’ll soon have to master on their own.
In nature, one of the most important sounds they’d be hearing is their father singing a lot. The Brown Thrasher song is long and lovely, filled with imitations of a wide assortment of bird songs and other sounds. It usually follows a pattern, with just about every phrase repeated once. Their close relative the Mockingbird repeats its phrases two or more times, and the catbird, in the same family, tends not to repeat phrases at all. But the sound quality of the three species songs is rich and varied, and easily recognized once you know what to listen for.
In order to be sure that my baby thrashers are exposed to at least some of the right sounds, I made a CD with a full hour of Brown Thrasher songs, which l play for them a few times a day. Learning their own song is critical for male thrashers to successfully attract a mate, and for females to recognize the right song. Playing the. CD might not make any difference, but it certainly can’t hurt. Brown Thrashers are closely related to that popular bird, the Mockingbird. Mockingbirds were selected as state bird of five states, and if Brown Thrashers can’t.match that, they’re at least the state bird of Georgia.
I’ve loved them since May 9, 1975, when I saw my very first one in the Baker Woodlot at Michigan State University. I worked my way through college as a bank teller, and a few years later, a customer stood in my line for 20 minutes waiting for me to finish a very long transaction, while all the other teller lines were open-he was waiting simply because he wanted to know what bird he’d seen in his yard that morning. He described a Brown Thrasher, and when I whipped out my Golden guide and showed him the picture, he beamed with delight.
Brown Thrashers are not a well-known bird, but any encounter with one is delightful. I feel fortunate indeed that my life intersected with the lives of Mork and Mindy. I just hope that during the coming weeks as they reach independence, they feel as fortunate that their lives intersected with mine.