A familiar sight in gardens across the southern United States, brown thrashers can frequently be spotted busily probing through fallen leaves and scuttling in and out of undergrowth. But what exactly are they looking for?
What is the main diet of brown thrashers, and does this change according to the time of year? If you’re interested in finding out, then you’re certainly in the right place!
Brown thrashers are omnivores, eating a mixture of insects, grains and fruit. Their diet changes according to what is seasonally available, with insects forming the majority of their food intake in the spring, and grains becoming more important later in the year.
Typical diet composition for brown thrashers is around 63 percent animal matter and 37 percent plants (fruits, grains, seeds and nuts). They can frequently be seen using their bills to pick through fallen leaves for insects and arthropods, in particular beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, caterpillars and larvae.
Fruits, mainly berries, are plucked from low-growing shrubbery, while nuts and seeds may also be taken from the ground around backyard feeders.
Occasionally snakes, small frogs, lizards, salamanders, and even hummingbirds will be eaten if the opportunity presents itself, although these larger prey items are not part of their daily staple diet.
To learn more about the dietary composition and feeding habits of brown thrashers, then please keep reading.
Insects are a staple of the Brown Thrasher diet
The diet of the brown thrasher varies depending on the time of year, with seeds common in late summer through winter, and insects playing more of a key role in spring and early summer. Acorns are a favorite in fall, while suet, corn and nuts will be taken from backyard feeders in winter or all year round if available.
Analysis indicates that beetles form the largest share of animal material eaten by brown thrashers, in particular May beetles, weevils, tent caterpillars, white grubs and army worms.
Acorns are one of the favorite seeds eaten by brown thrashers. In fall, they can frequently be seen hammering acorns against the ground to break open the shells. Other popular seeds include millet, corn and black sunflower seeds.
Insects commonly eaten by brown thrashers include grasshoppers, crickets, beetles and cicadas. Moths and caterpillars and flies and their larvae are also widely consumed.
The summer diet of brown thrashers comprises a range of fruits, mainly berries. Common varieties include blueberry, elderberry, pokeberry and blackberry. Wild fruits are foraged from trees such as holly, juniper, black gum, eastern red cedar, hackberry, red mulberry and hawthorn.
In the summer, Brown Thrashers consume much more fruit as it's much more readily available
When feeding nestlings, brown thrashers can be observed foraging for insects several times an hour. Outside of the breeding season, brown thrashers are known for their voracious appetite, and can be seen foraging for long periods, sifting through piles of fallen leaves for insects.
Known to be rather secretive birds that thrive in thickets and shrubby undergrowth, brown thrashers may also be seen opportunistically searching for food from beneath and around backyard feeders, as well as taking grain, seeds and suet from feeders placed on or near to the ground.
Brown thrashers are most likely to feed from feeders positioned close to ground level, including platform feeders and feeding tables, stocked with nuts, seeds and grains. It’s less likely that they will visit hanging feeders, although reports do exist.
Brown thrashers are diurnal birds, feeding during daylight hours, and finding food by sight, and using their long curved bills to grab any insects or seeds they may spot when sifting through fallen leaves on the ground.
Brown Thrashers have a particularly fondness for suet, and will occasionally visit backyard bird feeders
Brown thrashers forage for food on the ground, turning over fallen leaves and searching undergrowth for insects, acorns and berries. They use their beaks to swipe through leaves, probing for small bugs, and will also strike their bills into the earth to dig out insects and worms from beneath the surface.
Brown thrashers pick berries and seeds from shrubs and plants, and may also visit ground-level bird feeders or take birdseed sprinkled directly on the ground.
In winter months, observations of brown thrashers in Texas recorded around 95 percent of foraging time is spent on the ground, searching through leaf litter for seeds, particularly acorns, and fallen fruit. The remaining time, food is sourced from berry trees and dead leaves on trees.
A brown thrasher’s early summer diet consists primarily of insects, particularly grasshoppers and beetles, as well as caterpillars and earthworms. As the season progresses, grains and fruit form a larger share, with insects supplementing where available.
Baby brown thrashers are fed almost exclusively on larvae, arthropods and small insects, including flies, caterpillars, earthworms, mayflies, moths, and beetles.
Diet changes according to geographical location, and while most observations report an insect-based diet for nestlings, some pairs of brown thrashers in Kansas have been recorded as feeding sumac berries and blackberries to their young.
Brown Thrasher searching for food on the forest floor
Brown thrashers are relatively secretive birds that may be hard to spot as they sift through undergrowth and fallen leaves for insects to eat. But they may get tempted by ground-level bird feeders or suet and grains that are sprinkled on the floor.
It’s fine to feed Thrashers, and although they will typically not eat from traditional hanging feeders, they are fascinating to watch as they use their curved beaks to sort through leaf litter for seeds and acorns.
Grains and seeds are among brown thrashers’ staple foods, and they may also take suet, mealworms and peanuts.
Certain foods are unsafe for consumption by any birds, including brown thrashers. Foods to avoid feeding include onions, garlic, chives, chocolate, and any foods containing caffeine or alcohol.
Platform style bird feeders are better suited for Brown Thrashers
Brown thrashers drink water, and only water. Supplying a dish or freshwater close to the ground, or topped up bird bath will offer a suitable source of hydration for brown thrashers visiting your backyard.
Patches of undergrowth with thickets and shrubs will attract brown thrashers, who probe for insects by sifting through piles of leaves that cover the ground.
They are frequently seen darting in and out of low bushes, busily scouring their surroundings for bugs, grains and seeds. They are attracted to low-level bird feeders stocked with suet, nuts and seeds, and a source of fresh water will also be welcomed.
Brown thrashers keep insect populations under control and could be considered a benefit for gardeners wishing to protect their plants from pest damage.
Starling and Brown Thrasher at a bird bath
Brown thrashers that visit garden feeders will readily take suet pellets and sometimes feed from suet feeders positioned close to the ground.
Reports exist of brown thrashers occasionally catching hummingbirds when foraging on low-level flowers. This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, as brown thrashers use their powerful curved beaks to catch and eat similar-sized insects, such as moths and cicadas.
Snakes form a small, infrequent element of a brown thrasher’s diet, alongside lizards, frogs and salamanders. While these are not a core part of their daily food intake, it is not unheard of for them to eat bigger prey than the more usual grasshoppers and beetles.
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