Dec 1, 2014

The Hidden Virtuoso in the Garden

Many years ago I was walking past a tall tree in my garden; a mocking bird was in the top of the tree singing. As I passed the tree, it occurred to me the mockingbird was singing rather odd. I do most of my birding by ear while I am working in the garden.  This bird was repeating phrases only twice and moving on to the next song.  Mockingbirds will repeat a phrase 3 or more times.  I decided to stop and look back at the bird in the top of the tree.  It was no Mockingbird, but a Brown Thrasher, a close relative.  I wondered how many times I had made this mistake. 
In the spring, male Brown Thrashers will find a high perch to sing. This is always an odd sight to me, for Brown Thrashers spend most of their time foraging on the ground under bushes.  Ornithologists agree that the Brown Thrasher has one of the largest repertoires of any bird in North America.  A single bird knows over 1000 songs which are clear and loud. They often mimic other birds, but are not as good a mimic as the Mockingbird.  Both male and females are identical and both will sing.  I assume that it is the male who sings in the spring from a tall perch to find a mate.  Just the other day, I heard 2 Brown Thrashers singing under a large azalea bush.  They were not singing in harmony or even copying each other. Was it a mated pair singing together or was it 2 dueling males?  Without warning, the 2 birds flew up into a large camellia tree and chased each other around and around.  Was this courtship display or a territorial fight? 
Brown Thrashers are not often seen in suburban yards, but if you manage  your yard as a wildlife habitat you may have a pair. They like to forage under thick bushes and hedgerows with plenty of leaf litter.  In the summer, they eat insects and worms. In the winter, they will dine on berries like dogwood, pyracantha, rosehips and Virginia creeper.  They nest in thick bushes rather close to the ground.  Both parents incubate the eggs and take care of the young.  Young birds leave the nest less than 2 weeks from hatching.  

I have traveled around the country to observe wildlife; especially looking for birds. I think one of the most remarkable observations I have ever witnessed was in my own front yard.  One spring day a few years ago, I was sitting on my front porch. With binoculars in hand, I was hoping to see a few warblers passing through during spring migration.  The only bird in view was a Brown Thrasher under the loquat tree.  There is no grass under the tree and we leave the leaf litter as mulch.  I put my binoculars on the bird to see what it was eating.  It was picking up sticks and tossing them down.  I first thought it was looking for nesting material.  Then it found a stick about 4 inches long with a fork at the end.  Next, the bird put the stick down and picked it up again this time holding the stick near the end opposite the fork. To my amazement, the Brown Thrasher began sweeping the leaves with the forked stick.  Brown leaves flew off the ground as the bird swept the ground. Suddenly it dropped the stick and grabbed a bug and flew off. In 1835, Charles Darwin observed the Woodpecker Finches of the Galapagos Islands using tools. This was an important scientific discovery.  I have seen YouTube videos of crows using tools, but I had never personally seen a bird use a tool until that day.  Since that day, I always take the time to watch Brown Thrashers, but have never seen one use a tool again. 

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