Wondernose: What bird excavates holes by hammering its beak into the soil?

by Rebecca Martin | Apr 1, 2024 | 0 comments

Oops there, Wondernose. You didn’t listen carefully to my riddle if you think the woodpecker is the answer. Woodpeckers make holes in wood by hammering with their beaks. But our mystery bird digs in the soil, not in wood.

Like woodpeckers, these birds have strong necks, heads, and bills. It takes strength to hammer holes in hard, dry soil. Many of these birds live in desert areas, you see. Their purpose for digging is to find insects for food. We usually picture birds on the wing or high up in trees, don’t we? But these mystery birds are ground dwellers. Unlike their necks and bills, their wings aren’t very strong. They spend more time running around on the ground than in the air.

True, Wondernose, you and I are not very familiar with the desert variety of this bird. So, to help you guess, I’m now going to describe a species that lives closer to us. The bird is quite large, up to a foot long. Its plumage is a bright brown color. What? You didn’t know brown can be bright? Well, in the case of this bird, it is a very beautiful reddish brown, with pale underparts streaked with brown. I’m going to give you a big hint—the word “brown” is part of the bird’s name.

Like its desert cousins, our mystery bird is a ground-dweller. However, it doesn’t use its beak for excavation. Instead, the beak is used for “thrashing”—meaning that the bird will sweep its long beak from side to side, disturbing the leaves and debris. This, of course, scares up the insects. Our bird will even eat the occasional lizard or toad found by means of its thrashing.

Right you are, Wondernose. The answer to our riddle is the Brown Thrasher. Well, no, not really, because our original riddle had focused on the excavating habits of the California Thrasher. But the Brown Thrasher is the most familiar member of the thrasher family for us.

A rather odd genus of thrashers lives in the West Indies. It contains two species, the Gray and Brown Tremblers. When tremblers get excited, they shake or tremble all over. Think of an excited mockingbird flicking its wings, but shaking its body as well.

What a singer our Brown Thrasher is! You will hear its melodies in low shrubs at the edge of the forest. And maybe you will be puzzled—because the thrasher is a great imitator, like the Northern Mockingbird! A notable difference between the mockingbird and the thrasher is that the thrasher will repeat its imitations only twice in a row, while the mockingbird keeps on and on.

There is safety in the air. Birds on the wing escape from many predators. But because of the thrashers’ ground-dwelling habits, they fall prey all too often to cats or snakes.

The nests are also built low down where predators can easily reach. The parents certainly do their part by attacking intruders, but there is only so much they can do. Thankfully they often raise two families of four or five each year.

Brown Thrasher
Brown Thrasher. Photo © Dogwood Ridge.

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