Birding Column: Taming the California Thrasher

Mathew Tekulsky
The Birdman of Bel Air
for National Geographic News
June 8, 2004

The California thrasher is a secretive fellow. He enjoys poking around on the forest floor, searching for grubs, seeds, and insects among the decaying leaves and other detritus. You hardly ever see a California thrasher out in the open. They rarely fly for any great distances, preferring to walk along slowly but surely, covering a great amount of territory in this manner.

Now, in spite of their better instincts, I did manage to entice a few California thrashers to visit my yard on a regular basis. The thrashers learned that I placed mixed birdseed not only in the platform feeder in my side yard, but on the grass itself, just under and beside the platform feeder.

So, every day now, they make a ritual out of visiting my lawn and platform feeder to help themselves to not only mixed birdseed, but Cheerios and even tortilla chips.

The thrasher has a tough time eating Cheerios and doesn't swallow them whole. Its beak isn't designed for pecking at things, but rather for brushing around in the dirt and grabbing small items in the tip of its beak. The thrasher then throws these items into its throat and gullet with a small, backward movement of its head.

So when the thrasher picks up a Cheerio in the tip of his beak, it runs into the underbrush with the Cheerio dangling from his lower bill and held firm by the upper bill. I presume it takes its time then with the Cheerio, nibbling away at it until it disappears. The thrasher does the same thing with a tortilla chip, picking it up in its beak and running into the underbrush to polish it off.

However, the bird has uncanny precision when it comes to eating mixed birdseed. It eschews black oil sunflower seeds (not wanting to have to peck them open). But the thrasher is deadly accurate when it comes to picking up milo and millet seeds off of the ground or from the platform feeder. The bird picks these seeds up one by one, even the tiniest millet seed, so that the seed appears as a tiny, white speck just barely visible in the tip of his bill.

The California thrasher works it way into my yard in a slow, methodical fashion. First, it announces its presence at the far side of the pool with its distinctive, high-pitched "chirp" call, which is more like a squawk than a peep. The bird repeats this call every 15 or 20 seconds or so, as it either walks around the side of the pool along the patio or sneaks in through the bushes that line the side yard.

In either case, its chirp gets louder and louder the closer it gets to the food. But as soon as the thrasher starts eating, it becomes totally silent.

The thrasher is also a terror at the platform feeder. With its long, downward-curved bill, the thrasher runs at any other bird that so much as dares to land on the feeder. Whether it's a scrub jay or even a mourning dove, the offending party flies off of the feeder before the thrasher gets close enough to do any damage with that sharp bill.

I think the thrasher is just bluffing. But regardless, once it gains control of the platform feeder, it pigs out up there until it is satiated—which sometimes can take up to 20 minutes or so.

Now, there are times when the California thrasher actually sings. I doubt that there are many people in my neighborhood who are aware of this, or who know that it is a California thrasher that they are hearing.

On numerous occasions while walking into Sullivan Canyon, which runs behind my house in Bel Air, California, I've heard a high-pitched whistling sound that resembles the squeaking sound that a dolphin makes.

Continued on Next Page >>




NEWS FEEDS     After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.   After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.

Get our news delivered directly to your desktop—free.
How to Use XML or RSS

National Geographic Daily News To-Go

Listen to your favorite National Geographic news daily, anytime, anywhere from your mobile phone. No wires or syncing. Download Stitcher free today.
Click here to get 12 months of National Geographic Magazine for $15.