Denizens Of The Desert:
Desert Bighorn And Near Relatives
Battle Of The Reptiles
Latrodectus, The Poisonous
Le Conte Thrasher
Gnatcatchers And Verdins
Desert White–crowned Sparrow
Read More Articles About: Denizens Of The Desert
Le Conte Thrasher
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
"IF you want to see a bird that can run, you must watch for the little brownish bird that's got a long sickle bill," said Charlie, my cowboy friend, with whom I had been talking about the fleet-footedness of the comical road-runner. "They's a bird that can really run. They's the greatest dodgers and runners and hiders you ever did see. There 's only one way you can ever catch one that I ever seen, and that is, by chasing them down on horseback. But it's risky business trying to get one that way, that 's what I know. Suppose your horse tumbles in a badger hole when you're chasing your bird at breakneck speed and you go headlong into a bunch of that awful cholla, then what would you say? It's no fun then, that's sure. I knowed a feller once, a cowman, over on the Whitewater, who had just that thing happen to him. He saw one of them birds, and just for fun, he said he'd show us boys how to get him. He started out full gallop after him and chased the bird from one bush into another. But that bird was such a good runner and got under the bushes so quick every time, that he kept that cowman guessin' all the time where he was. Of course no bird can keep on rennin' and dodgin' forever, and soon he got so tired out he could n't hardly go no further. Just when that cowman thought he had his bird, what should his horse do but step into a badger's hole while going full gait, and throw that old man right into a cholla. Oh., but he was a sight! All stuck up with dozens of prickly cholla joints, and it hurt so bad that when we came up to help pull 'em out he just yelled and cried like a little boy. From head to foot his clothes were pinned to his skin. That feller don't go bird-huntin' and chasin' no more; no, no more. He says that birds can run in the bushes forever and never get bothered so far as he is concerned."
After hearing this interesting recital of this bird's running abilities from Charlie, I was anxious to get a sight of one. I shall never forget that day when I first saw my Le Conte thrasher tearing like a fugitive from justice at breakneck speed out of my sight. Almost quicker than my eye could follow him he dashed into a bush, and by the time I reached the spot where I thought he was hidden I saw him speeding a hundred yards away to get under cover of another. Like the road-runner he preferred running to flying and took wing only when hard-pressed by his pursuer. Since his color was so near that of the gray sands and vegetation of his range, he slipped out of sight with the greatest ease. It was a long time before I saw him again. Nowhere is the Le Conte thrasher plentiful, and I watched carefully through many seasons before I really felt I knew this wary bird.
His shyness is of an exaggerated type. He tries always by every possible means to avoid you and with his powers of running and dodging he generally is successful. Collectors tell me that he is one of the most difficult of all birds to shoot and that the only way for the gunner to get him is literally to shoot while on the run.
Though rather rare birds, the Le Conte thrashers are always about in greater numbers than you are aware of. About the only way to make a census with any proximity to satisfaction is to count the nests of the season. I have traveled for days and have seen but one or two of these thrashers about when I well knew by signs that there were many more in the vicinity.
They generally keep pretty well to the brush-tangled washes where some protection is offered them from intruders. If there is a field of cholla cactus in the vicinity, you may be sure that they have sought it out as the most suitable place for the nest. They will occasionally build in palo verde trees, but the cactuses are always their first choice as building-sites.
The nests are generally inconspicuously placed in the center of the thickly spined, branching tops of the cactuses and consist of rather coarse thorny twigs. They are easily distinguished from the nests of the cactus wrens by their open tops. The inside is generally lined by vegetable wool gathered from a small woolly plant, known as filago.
The female, like most of the thrashers and like the wren-tit of the foothills, is a close sitter, and seldom leaves the nest until the intruder is right upon her. And then when she goes she leaves as silently as a mouse with never a word of protest or the faintest cry to show any sign of alarm. She simply slips over the back of the nest and is gone.
Mr. French Gilman, of Banning, California, because of his long residence on the desert and his intelligent interest in birds, is, perhaps, better acquainted with the habits and manner-isms of the Le Conte thrasher than are most Western birdmen. With his permission I am here appending in effect his words concerning the call notes and singing habits in general of this hermit bird:
" My introduction to this interesting bird, Toxostoma lecontei, was during the summer of 1882 when with his whistling note he confirmed my earlier belief in ghosts. In a mesquite and creosote bush thicket at Whitewater Ranch on the Colorado Desert was buried a Mexican horsethief who had died with his boots on. Near this thicket I frequently wandered, though it was said to be haunted. On several occasions a whistle sent me to the ranch house to see what was wanted, but when I got there it was always to find that no one had whistled. This puzzled me until I found the noise came from the thicket, and of course it must be the Mexican ghost. This I believed until, a few days later, accident revealed to me the real whistler, a Le Conte thrasher. The note of the thrasher can be mistaken for that of no other bird. It resembles closely the whistle a man employs in calling a dog -- short with rising inflection at the end. So striking is the resemblance that it is nearly impossible to distinguish one from the other. The calls are uttered at intervals of about a minute, when the bird is in the mood, and are easily imitated. If the imitation is accurate, the bird will continue answering for a long time, but care must be taken not to repeat the whistle too rapidly or he sees through the deception. In addition to the call note he has a very attractive song which resembles that of an uneducated mocking-bird, though fuller and richer and pitched in a higher key.
"The only drawback to the song is its infrequency, even when the birds are most abundant. You may be in their midst all day and see several pairs, but if one song rewards you it may be counted as a red-letter day. At least this has been my experience of nine years in particular. For some time I doubted the statement made by some writers that the Le Conte thrasher was a fine singer, but I was finally shown by the bird himself. While standing one evening on a high-drifted hill of white sand about two miles west of the rim of the ancient Salton Sea, I heard the sweet strains of a new bird song and began to look for the singer. I expected to find a mocking-bird whose individuality had been developed by the desert solitudes and who had learned a new song. On an adjoining sand-hill, perched on the exposed tip of a sand-buried mesquite, I saw the singer - a Le Conte thrasher. Perhaps environment enhanced the music, for the spot was a most lonesome, forsaken one, near an ancient Indian encampment and burial-ground, but I have heard no sweeter bird song and the memory still lingers. Since then I have heard the song a few times, but not oftener than once or twice a year, though I have frequently been among the birds. Not only do they seldom sing, but the whistling call note is nut often heard. They appear to be silent, unsociable creatures, never more than a pair being found together, unless a brood of young birds and parents, and then only until the former can shift for themselves."