Virtuoso

Working from home (as are most of us), Assistant Director Jenny Houghton has been working on Nature Notes to share in our weekly email newsletters (email us to sign up!).

Recently, I had a rare break from “stay at home” orders to help with plant sale pickups at the Arboretum. My job consisted of standing at the service gate welcoming arrivals. Despite gray skies and chilly temperatures, my spirits were lifted by the cheerful sound of a bird singing lustily from the top of a nearby pine tree. His repertoire was truly impressive, consisting of melody after melody with no break in between.

Fast-forward two hours and lots of cold drizzle later, and the bird, who, by then I’d nicknamed Mr. Noisypants, was still singing. With mixed feelings of awe and exasperation, I pulled a pair of Bushnell binoculars from the golf cart to take a closer look.

Brown thrasher. Photo by Kellen McCluskey.

Mr. Noisypants was a fine specimen. A tad larger than a robin with a narrow, somewhat curved beak and a white chest streaked with brown, he was obviously no mockingbird. I committed his appearance to memory and decided to call my dependable birder friend, Mr. Wilson, as soon as I got home.

“Brown thrasher,” said Mr. Wilson, without a moment’s hesitation. He proceeded to share an impressive number of facts about this species, some of which I retained and more of which I had to look up later on Wikipedia.

Brown thrashers are members of the Mimidae family, along with catbirds and mockingbirds. I was correct in labeling my thrasher “Mister” since it is the male birds that are most conspicuous, especially during mating season. Brown thrashers are purported to have a song repertoire of 1,100—perhaps the largest of any North American bird—with each individual singing up to 3000 song phrases. Males sing loudest when seeking a mate in the spring. Charmingly, interested females will exchange a leaf or twig as part of a courtship ritual. Males will likewise present a twiggy gift, and nest-building soon begins, followed by mating and the laying of two to three blue-green eggs with reddish brown spots.

The word “thrasher” does not refer to a call but rather to the sound these omnivores make when foraging for food among leaf litter. Brown thrashers live in dense thickets and along woodland edges, where they build grass-lined nests in low branches. Males can be quite protective of their nests and will attack much larger species, including humans. Luckily, Mr. Noisypants was still in courtship mode and seemed oblivious of my presence.

I am a very poor birder, but I’ve found that the birds I do remember are not ones I’ve looked up in a book but ones I’ve looked at—and listened to—closely and at length. This is the wonderful thing about being a naturalist: learning is best achieved through direct observation, with book or internet research following only later. Many of us have more time now than ever to head outside and observe nature closely and at length. May we all grow in knowledge, health, and awe in the days ahead.

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