Adult brown thrashers have reddish upperparts and whitish underparts, with a long, black tail. They have long, straight bills and yellow eyes. Males and females are alike in size and color. The young appear the same as adults, except their upperparts are spotted and their eyes are gray.
Brown thrashers are found from southeastern Canada through eastern, central, and southeastern United States. They are found in the Nearctic region. Brown thrashers are the only thrasher species east of the Rocky Mountains and central Texas. During the summer brown thrashers are found from southern Canada south to east central Texas. Brown thrashers migrate short distances between the summer and winter seasons. They migrate at night. Birds in the northern part of their range migrate into the southern parts of their range.
Brown thrashers are found in warm, dry habitats, such as warm forest edges and dense thickets. They are also found in suburban and agricultural areas. (Cavitt and Haas, 2000; Peterson, 1999; Peterson, 2001)
When male brown thrashers arrive at the breeding grounds in spring they establish a territory. Breeding begins in February and March in the southern parts of their range and from May to June in the north. Once the male and female form a bond, they begin to build a nest. Mates find each other with calls, most commonly using a call similar to a "tick" or "tchuck".
Brown thrashers start breeding from February to June, depending on the area where they are found. Brown thrashers lay 3 to 5 eggs each breeding season. Incubation takes about two weeks, once the eggs have hatched, nestlings take from 9 to 13 days to fledge. Independence is reached 17 to 19 days later.
Both parents incubate, brood, and feed nestlings. They incubate by sitting tightly on the nest and slip off when disturbed. During the incubation period, the female does the majority of the incubating. Both parents feed the chicks. (Cavitt and Haas, 2000; Ehrlich, et al., 1988)
Only about 35% of brown thrashers live through their first and second years, about 50% between second and third years, and 75% between the third and fourth years. Diseases, parasites, and cold exposure can kill these birds. The longest known lifespan in the wild is twelve years and in captivity, ten to twelve years.
Brown thrashers are usually territorial and are found in pairs or with offspring during the breeding season. They compete with other birds for habitat and nesting areas. This competition results in hostile encounters with birds like gray catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis). Mostly it is males that are aggressive towards other birds. During winters brown thrashers often make other birds move out of their feeding areas. The name "thrasher" may come from the bird's habit of thrashing ground litter with its bill. Migration is over short distances and at night.
Territory-mapping studies indicate variation in territory densities. Most activites of a pair are confined to territories. (Cavitt and Haas, 2000)
Brown thrashers communicate mainly with calls. They copy the sounds of other birds and are known for their beautiful, complex songs. Males have many kinds of songs, more than any other kind of North American bird, as many as 1100 types of songs. At young ages, brown thrashers use "alarm noises". They also use their vision and sense of touch to find and handle food.
Brown thrashers eat insects, mainly beetles and other arthropods, fruits, and nuts. They forage for food on the ground in leaf litter below trees and shrubs. These birds sweep the soil and leaf litter with rapid side-to-side movements of their beak. After sweeping a few times, they probe the soil and litter with their beaks.
Gray catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis) have been documented visiting brown thrasher nests to break the eggs. Two hypotheses are proposed to explain this heterospecific egg destruction behavior: resource competition and egg predation. These birds both live in shrubs and have similar timing in breeding. They compete for the resources of this habitat. Once the catbird has broken the egg, usually it will consume the contents. This egg consumption is consistent with the proposed egg predation hypothesis. The eggs of brown thrashers are also preyed on by many species of snakes. Adults and nestlings are preyed on by falcons. (Cavitt and Haas, 2000; Rivers and Sandercock, 2004)
To respond to predation, brown thrashers have a few natural defenses. Adults are aggressive and often chase predators from the nest. Adults will use their bill to hit predators, these are large birds and they can cause significant damage to small and medium-sized predators. Other defenses include flapping theirwings and vocalizations. (Cavitt and Haas, 2000; Rivers and Sandercock, 2004)
Gray catbirds sometimes visit brown thrasher nests and break and eat the eggs. The eggs of brown thrashers are also preyed on by many species of snakes. Adults and nestlings are preyed on by falcons.
Brown thrashers are aggressive and often chase predators from their nests. Adults will use their bills to hit predators, they also flap their wings at predators and use alarm calls.
Ecosystem roles include competition with other birds for nesting sites and resources. Also these birds are prey for many snakes and other birds. (Cavitt and Haas, 2000; Ehrlich, et al., 1988; "Mockingbirds", 1985; Fergus, 2004)
Brown thrashers are one of the best and most spectacular singers of all North American birds. Avid bird watchers enjoy the chance to see and hear these birds. (Ehrlich, et al., 1988)
Brown thrashers are not listed as threatened or endangered in any part of their range. No management actions are known to increase or maintain populations. Dangers include pesticides, collisions with structures, and some degradation of habitats. These effects have yet to become harmful enough to cause concern. (Cavitt and Haas, 2000)
Brown thrashers belong to the mimic thrush family, Mimidae. They are among the most vocal birds and often mimic other species. Other birds in this group include northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) and gray catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis).
The best time to observe these birds is in April, before nest sites are established. During this time males sing on high branches to attract mates. (Cavitt and Haas, 2000; Ehrlich, et al., 1988; Fergus, 2004)
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