Learning the Birds
By Any Other Name
Ruth Rogers Erickson, March 18, 2003, The Canadian Record, © 2003
It is an irony of Bird World that a number of birds are far more interesting than their names might suggest. The Brown Thrasher is on my list of these.
It's the “brown” in his name, I think, that puts us off - brown sounds pretty boring when used in the name of a bird. A respectable name would have a word like cinnamon, mahogany, coffee, or bronze.
A few of his old nicknames suit him better: the sandy-mocker, the fox-colored thrush, and the red mavis more adequately describe this handsome bird. His back, wings, and tail are a coppery cinnamon, and his underparts are the color of golden sand with dark speckled streaks. He has a pair of surprising yellow eyes that seem lit from within.
Thrashers got their name for several reasons. When they forage on the ground, rifling with their long bills and overturning leaves, there is undeniably a fair amount of thrashing going on.
But there are also many accounts of thrashers acting in defense of nest and young, doling out to their attackers actual thrashings. That sharp bill can be a formidable weapon. An opponent would need a stout heart to stand up to an angry thrasher.
The word “thrush” is often associated with this bird, but mistakenly. Thrushes are birds of the air, and include robins and bluebirds. Thrashers are larger, ground-loving birds, members of the Mimid family, as are mockingbirds and catbirds. Thrush/thrasher confusion is long-established, though, as an old name for the mimid family was mimic thrush.
Like their official mockingbird and catbird kin, brown thrashers have remarkable vocal abilities. Mockingbirds are known for mimicking other birds, reciting long lists of birdsong not their own. Catbirds do this, too, mixing in renditions of croaking frogs, squawking chickens, and as you might expect, cats.
What sets the brown thrasher apart is a propensity for improvisation. Mockingbirds and catbirds, for all their virtuosity, sing their songs the same way every time. A brown thrasher sings a phrase twice or three times, tinkers a bit and sings it again in its slightly altered state. In a single concert, one brown thrasher may sing thousands of different songs.
There are several theories about why mimids sing the way they do. Singing a number of different songs might communicate to a female age, experience, or learning ability. Or it might run off a rival, fooling him into thinking an area is already full of competent males. But what drives a thrasher to continually improvise does not seem clearly understood.
In spring planting season, people say the brown thrasher sings a song of advice and encouragement. The words most often put to the song are “plant-a-seed, plant-a-seed, drop it, drop it, drop-it, cover-it-up.”
If you hear the thrashing of a thrasher in the leaves, or listen to his innovative music from the treetops, remember that a word as forgettable as “brown” may well describe a multitude of virtues.