Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the May 27, 2012 Newsletter issued from the woods of the Loess Hill Region a few miles east of Natchez, Mississippi, USA

A Brown Thrasher has built a nest in a dense, unpruned Pear tree in the orchard. You can see the nest and the mama giving me the yellow eye below:

Brown Thrasher, TOXOSTOMA RUFUM, in nest

I read that Brown Thrashers lay three to five eggs in "twiggy" nests lined with grass. The nest in the picture certainly couldn't be twiggier.

It'll be fun monitoring the nest, which isn't far from my trailer. I'm a bit worried about it, though. It's only about five feet off the ground (1.5m), easily climbable by a cat, and the resident house cat knows the nest is there. I've seen cats wait on their attacks until nestlings were available. The only hopeful part is that Brown Thrashers are known to be vigorous nest defenders. And if I'm around when the attack comes, I'll have my slingshot ready.

from the October 13, 2002 Newsletter issued from the woods of the Loess Hill Region a few miles south of Natchez, Mississippi, USA

Fall migration of birds is going on right now, and it's amazingly different from spring migration. This spring, migrants wore bright spring plumage and they sang with abandon. Now they are mostly somber-colored, usually quiet or silent, and mostly make an effort to pass unseen. It would be easy not to notice the passage, but each day there are certain hints of what's going on. Hoeing in the garden I hear a single chip-sound from a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Deep in the night from high in the black sky I hear a single lonely skronk from some kind of crane or large heron. A brief cheep in the bushes pinpoints an American Redstart snapping gnats among the shadows.

Often waves of migrants arrive on weather fronts. This Tuesday, I think it was, a cold front (into the 60s) just reached us and stalled out, and it brought with it a hilarious number of Brown Thrashers. We have Brown Thrashers year round, so these new ones hailed from farther north. During the winter in the Mississippi Valley Brown Thrashers are found no farther north than southern Kentucky, approximately.

I took a walk on the day the big wave of Brown Thrashers came in. With the cold front stalled atop us, it was drizzly and chilly -- somber. But there were so many Brown Thrashers I had to laugh. It seemed every big tree, every fencerow, every brushpile, every blackberry bramble had its Brown Thrasher, and they weren't silent, either. Brown Thrashers, being in the same family as Mockingbirds and Catbirds, are brilliant singers, but now in this broody chill they issued a growly churrrr call, the warning many birds make to announce a snake in the vicinity. Sometimes they also issued a liquid smacking sound. Nothing of music here, just these strange, almost unsettling calls emanating from every shadow and every form on the landscape.

Because they prefer semi-open areas instead of thick forest, I've seldom seen them around my camp. However, now that Hurricane Lili brought down the big Pecan that flattened all those 30-ft-tall Sweetgums next to my trailer, the heap of snapped twigs, splintered limbs and tattered leaves seems to be of the birds' liking, and some have been hanging around my camp.

Making up for that day's melancholy churrrrs and liquid smackings, on Thursday afternoon the sun came out brilliantly and as I sat working at my computer a Brown Thrasher hopped past just outside my door. How vibrant and warm his rusty-colored back was in the sunshine, and how striking were his piercing, yellow-orange eyes. He was a proud-looking, self-assured bird, and for a moment I think he paused and cocked his head to listen to the Bach fugues filtering through my screen door.

Who would have thought that such a pleasing moment might blossom from the hurricane-inspired demise of an old Pecan tree?

from the March 9, 2003 Newsletter issued from the woods of the Loess Hill Region a few miles south of Natchez, Mississippi, USA

In last year's October 13 Newsletter I described a "wave" of Brown Thrashers passing through migrating southward. I remarked how secretive they were, hiding themselves in bushes and issuing melancholy smacking sounds. All winter some have hung around, always skulking and staying quiet, sometimes showing a yellow eye glaring at me from deep in the shadows.

One day last week and several days this week, the Brown Thrashers have begun singing. It's not half- hearted stuff, either. They fly into the tops of the taller trees and call louder than anyone else, except the hawks and owls. Whole mornings they sing.

I have been thinking what it must be like being a Brown Thrasher at this time of year. Naturally these behavioral changes are brought about by alterations in their hormone levels. Yet, surely, for birds as well as with us, hormones express themselves through the agency of moods.

So, what must have been that mood like that all winter kept the Brown Thrasher silent and withdrawn? What conflict of urges have these poor birds endured these recent days as their minds lay locked in gloomy hush while their hearts irrepressibly began swelling with the need to fly high and sing? What must it be like now there in the top of the big Water Oaks singing with nothing but the sky above and the broad Earth spread out below, when just a day or two ago it was enough to lurk inside dismal Blackberry thickets?

On another matter, I'll bet that much Brown Thrasher singing nowadays is being misidentified as Mockingbird singing. Sometimes it's hard for me to tell the two birds' songs apart, too. In fact, Brown Thrashers, Mockingbirds and Catbirds are all common in our area and though their plumages are very different from one another, all three species have similar songs, all are of similar size and shape, and all are members of the family Mimidae. Here is one trick I use to distinguish their calls:

Mockingbirds usually repeat their phrases three or more times before changing to a different one in their ongoing serenades. Brown Thrashers usually repeat their phrases twice. Catbirds just emit a strung- together series of calls with no repetition. Often you hear exceptions to these rules. In fact, one Brown Thrasher near my trailer repeats his call three times so frequently that a couple of times I've gone out with my binoculars to make sure a Mockingbird hadn't taken his place!