The Brown Thrasher in the Words of Naturist John Burroughs

Burroughs Describes the Nesting Attempts by a Pair of Solitary, Yellow-eyed Songsters

Reading Time: 5 minutes

The great American naturist John Burroughs shares his insight about the Brown Thrasher is such vivid detail, and it’s as if you are experiencing his encounter with this beautiful bird.

Burroughs’ foremost legacy is his lyrical writing, in which he championed the preservation of open spaces and the natural world.

By reading this, consider yourself one in a long line of Burroughs admirers.

That includes Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Theodore Roosevelt.

Burroughs and the 26th president shared a love of birds, and Burroughs even went bird-watching with Roosevelt in the nation’s capital.

Read on to enjoy ‘The Brown Thrasher’ from Burroughs book, ‘Bird Stories from Burroughs.’

The big, foxy-red Brown Thrasher is a familiar bird over much of the east
The big, foxy-red Brown Thrasher is a familiar bird over much of the east

The Brown Thrasher

Our long-tailed thrush, or thrasher, delights in a high branch of some solitary tree, whence it will pour out its rich and intricate warble for an hour together.

This bird is the great American chipper.

There is no other bird that I know of that can chip with such emphasis and military decision as this yellow-eyed songster.

It is like the click of a giant gunlock.

Why is the thrasher so stealthy?

Hiding Like a Fugitive from Justice

It always seems to be going about on tip-toe.

I never knew it to steal anything, and yet it skulks and hides like a fugitive from justice.

One never sees it flying aloft in the air and traversing the world openly, like most birds, but it darts along fences and through bushes as if pursued by a guilty conscience.

Only when the musical fit is upon it does it come up into full view, and invite the world to hear and behold.

Finding the Thrasher’s Treasures

Years pass without my finding a brown thrasher’s nest; it is not a nest you are likely to stumble upon in your walk; it is hidden as a miser hides his gold, and watched as jealously.

The male pours out his rich and triumphant song from the tallest tree he can find and fairly challenges you to come and look for his treasures in his vicinity.

But you will not find them if you go.

Nest Veiled in Secrecy

The nest is somewhere on the outer circle of his song; he is never so imprudent as to take up his stand very near it.

The artists who draw those cozy little pictures of a brooding mother bird, with the male perched but a yard away in full song, do not copy from nature.

The thrasher’s nest I found was thirty or forty rods from the point where the male was wont to indulge in his brilliant recitative.

It was in an open field under a low ground juniper.

My dog disturbed the sitting bird as I was passing near.

The nest could be seen only by lifting up and parting away the branches.


Art of Concealment

All the arts of concealment had been carefully studied.

It was the last place you would think of looking in, and, if you did look, nothing was visible but the dense green circle of the low-spreading juniper.

When you approached, the bird would keep her place till you had begun to stir the branches when she would start out, and, just skimming the ground, make a bright brown line to the near fence and bushes.

I confidently expected that this nest would escape molestation, but it did not.

The Brown Thrasher often scoots into dense cover at any disturbance, hiding among the briar tangles and making loud crackling callnotes
The Brown Thrasher often scoots into dense cover at any disturbance, hiding among the briar tangles and making loud crackling callnotes

Empty Nest

Its discovery by myself and dog probably opened the door for ill luck, as one day, not long afterward, when I peeped in upon it, it was empty.

The proud song of the male had ceased from his accustomed tree, and the pair were seen no more in that vicinity.

After a pair of nesting birds have been broken up once or twice during the season, they become almost desperate and will make great efforts to outwit their enemies.

Thrashers Try Again

A pair of brown thrashers built their nest in a pasture-field under a low, scrubby apple-tree which the cattle had browsed down till it spread a thick, wide mass of thorny twigs only a few inches above the ground.

Some blackberry briers had also grown there so that the screen was perfect.

My dog first started the bird, as I was passing near.

By stooping low and peering intently, I could make out the nest and eggs.

Two or three times a week, as I passed by, I would pause to see how the nest was prospering.

The mother bird would keep her place, her yellow eyes never blinking.

Plundered by Predators

One morning, as I looked into her tent, I found the nest empty.

Some night-prowler, probably a skunk or a fox, or maybe a black snake or a red squirrel by day, had plundered it.

It would seem as if it was too well screened; it was in such a spot as any depredator would be apt to explore.

“Surely,” he would say, “this is a likely place for a nest.”

The birds then moved over the hill a hundred rods or more, much nearer the house, and in some rather open bushes tried again.

But again, they came to grief.

A Bold Stroke

Then, after some delay, the mother bird made a bold stroke.

She seemed to reason with herself thus: “Since I have fared so disastrously in seeking seclusion for my nest, I will now adopt the opposite tactics, and come out fairly in the open. What hides me hides my enemies: let us try greater publicity.”

So she came out and built her nest by a few small shoots that grew beside the path that divides the two vineyards, and where we passed to and fro many times daily.

I discovered her by chance early in the morning as I proceeded to my work.

She started up at my feet and flitted quickly along above the plowed ground, almost as red as the soil.

I admired her audacity.

Listen for the male Brown Thrasher delivering its rich, melodious song of doubled phrases from the top of a tall tree
Listen for the male Brown Thrasher delivering its rich, melodious song of doubled phrases from the top of a tall tree

Open and Exposed

Surely no prowler by night or day would suspect a nest in this open and exposed place.

There was no cover by which they could approach, and no concealment anywhere.

The nest was a hasty affair, as if the birds’ patience at nest-building had been about exhausted.

Presently an egg appeared, and then the next day another, and on the fourth day a third.

No doubt the bird would have succeeded this time had not man interfered.

Man’s Interference

In cultivating the vineyards, the horse and cultivator had to pass over this very spot.

Upon this, the bird had not calculated.

I determined to assist her.

I called my man and told him there was one spot in that vineyard, no bigger than his hand, where the horse’s foot must not be allowed to fall, nor tooth of cultivator to touch.

Then I showed him the nest and charged him to avoid it.

Throwing Caution to the Wind

Probably if I had kept the secret to myself, and let the bird run her own risk, the nest would have escaped.

But the result was that the man, in elaborately trying to avoid the nest, overdid the matter; the horse plunged and set his foot squarely upon it.

Such a little spot, the chances were few that the horse’s foot would fall exactly there; and yet it did, and the birds’ hopes were again dashed.

The pair then disappeared from my vicinity, and I saw them no more.

John Burroughs is one of the most important nature writers in history and a noted authority about backyard birding.

Learn more about John Burroughs and his works at the John Burroughs Association at

If you’re in the vicinity of John Burroughs’ Slabsides and Nature Sanctuary at Floyd Ackert Road in West Park, NY, stop by on May 18, 2019, for Slabsides Day to visit his famous cabin in the woods.
Learn more about Slabsides Day at

Get directions to Slabsides here.


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