By Karen McBride
This morning I was awakened by loud and melodious bird song. There was only one problem with that....it was 5:00 a.m. and pitch dark! In my foggy state, I automatically tried to decide what was making all the racket. It could have been a Northern Mockingbird; they often sing at night, but the phrases weren't repeated regularly enough. Mockingbirds will sing something four times, then switch to something else and do it three or four times, and so on, often mimicking other birds' calls. No, this one just rambled and bubbled on, and finally ended in an emphatic, whistled “Whit-WHEET!” Aha! Curve-billed Thrasher. Mystery solved.
Everyone who lives in Green Valley knows the very common Curve-billed Thrasher, if only by the call. It's a large brown bird with a sturdy, down-curved dark bill, yellow eyes, vaguely spotted breast, and a long tail. This time of year it sings from prominent perches like rooftops, cholla cactus, or shrubs to announce its territory, and is often seen running along the ground or digging beneath a bush for insects. “Thrashing” the dirt is really what it does. And if you offer packaged suet and nuts at your feeder, it will come.
What you may not know is that the Curve-billed Thrasher has a cousin who lives at the mouth of Madera Canyon. This cousin is much more secretive and harder to see, and, in my opinion, should be the one called “curve-billed”. He is a darker, grayer bird; his bill is longer and strongly curved downward; his eyes are light but not as bright; his breast has no hint of spots; and from the lower belly to the under-tail is a bright patch of rusty red feathers. He also runs along the ground, digging for food under bushes, but prefers much denser brush than the town-dwelling Curve-billed.
And this bird definitely is no dummy. He can immediately identify a cowbird egg in his nest and wastes no time in heaving it over the side. Most of the time, he stays in thick cover and rarely comes up where you can see him.....except during the courting season of January and February, when you may spot him in a small tree or bush, sitting close to the trunk about a foot down from the top. There he doesn't feel too exposed to danger.
This cousin is called Crissal Thrasher, named for the bright patch under his tail. If you'd like to see one, grab your binoculars and walk the trail from the Proctor Parking Area (heck, sometimes they show up in the brushy middle of the parking area!), along the paved trail toward the Proctor Loop, and listen for their rapid, distinctive call: “Toi, toi, toit?” “Toi, toi, toit?” Never approach too closely or they will drop and disappear in an instant. If you're lucky, you will see the pair that lives in that area year-round and will, later on, be guiding their offspring around, teaching them how to “thrash.”