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Brown Thrasher known for singing ability

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"No sooner has the bird reached its destined abode, than whenever a fair morning occurs, it mounts the topmost twig of a detached tree, and pours forth its loud, richly varied, and highly melodious song." That's how John James Audubon described the singing habits of the Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum).

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The bird is common in our area although it is likely heard more than it is seen, being a somewhat shy dweller of heavier scrub edges. But when the male decides it's time to sing, he will (as Audubon describes) often do so from a high point where he is easily observed.

The Brown Thrasher is mostly reddish brown on its upper parts with two white wing bars and a white breast heavily streaked with dark teardrops. Its eyes and legs are yellow, its face is gray and both sexes are similar in appearance. Once seen, it is hard to confuse this bird with any other around here.

Being a member of the family Mimidae (or mimics), the bird has an amazing repertoire of vocalizations; one of the largest in North America in fact. It is said the bird is able to sing up to 3,000 distinct songs.

With such a vast assembly of music at its disposal, one would imagine it difficult to identify the bird by song alone. Not really. First, we in North Dakota don't have many mimics to confuse us (really only the Gray Catbird and the rare Northern Mockingbird). And second, the Brown Thrasher usually gives itself away by uttering phrases twice in sort of a self-echo affair. Its call note is distinctive as well, being described as a "tchuck," rather like a loud smacking kiss.

It feeds on the ground by sweeping soil and leaf litter in search of insects, arthropods, fruits and seeds. This somewhat loud activity can also give its location away especially when the ground is dry.

The bird nests on or near the ground and probably raises two broods here in North Dakota, being a rather early migrant. From about southeast Alberta to central Texas and east to the Atlantic coast is where the Brown Thrasher chooses to nest, and winters in the southern part of the same general range. It's not entirely out of the question to hear of one or two even spending the winter with us in North Dakota.

If a person does find a nest, that person is likely to encounter a vigorous defense from both parents. They are very aggressive in keeping their nesting attempts uninterrupted to the point where they will strike curious trespassers, often to the point of drawing blood.

For backyard enthusiasts, this bird can be a regular if you have enough low cover. My yard usually gets Brown Thrashers in the spring and again in late summer, when some of the berries are ripe. Two summers ago there was a male that established a territory a half block south of our house. I'm not sure if it ever found a mate and nested or if it spent the season as a bachelor, but it provided a welcome music fest every morning for the remainder of the summer.

Out of town the bird becomes common. A person can hardly pass a farmstead anywhere in rural areas without hearing a Brown Thrasher crooning in spring or early summer.

Take a look at the tops of trees the next time you hear a jumbled mix of varied bird songs. It could very well be a Brown Thrasher. And if it sings in doubled phrases, it almost surely is.

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