Sage Thrasher

sage thrasher

A sage thrasher sings from his elevated perch in sagebrush country.

A songbird flitted about in the sagebrush about 40 yards distant. In keeping with my quality assurance policy that every bird is either a: robin or house sparrow if a songbird, a red-tailed hawk if a raptor, or a mallard if a duck, until proven otherwise, I assumed it was a robin. Body size was about right for a robin, but the color was a bit pale. But when we finally got a look at its breast, which was striped and spotted and not the orange-red of a robin, we knew exactly what we had, a sage thrasher.

The sage thrasher is the smallest of a family of birds called thrashers. Mostly they are birds of the deserts and we have seen curve-billed, long-billed, Bendire’s, brown and crissal thrashers on trips to Texas and Arizona. We have yet to see the LeConte’s and the California thrashers. There are two other species endemic to Mexico, and one endemic to two islands of the Lesser Antilles, south of Florida.

Thrashers are members of the Mimidae family which includes mockingbirds and new world catbirds. The thrasher name comes from the habit of thrashers to sweep their long bill back and forth, “thrashing” through the leaf litter looking for insects, their favorite food.

Thrashers are often identified by the habitat they occupy. The sage thrasher is a sagebrush obligate in summer, meaning that it only inhabits sagebrush expanses. On a recent trip along the Green River in Wyoming, where sagebrush habitat is expansive and mostly intact, we saw sage thrashers just about everywhere we looked. The same can be said for just about any Western sagebrush habitat—if it is in good shape, sage thrashers will be there.

A sage thrasher has a longish bill curved slightly at the tip, but not nearly as long as those of some of its cousins. While a sage thrasher’s bill may be three quarters of an inch long, several cousins have long recurved bills almost two inches long.

Another common thread among thrashers is their complex and melodious song. They sing loud, long—the record for continuous song by a sage thrasher is 22 minutes—and from lofty perches. Even then, the sage thrasher’s song seems to be sweeter than its bigger relatives, and it really brightens up a spring morning in the sagebrush country.

A sage thrasher is easy to recognize. As previously noted, it is robin-sized, only slimmer, light gray-brown on the back and with a spotted chest running to stripes, and flanks which are slightly rufous-colored. It has long legs and tail and yellow eyes.

Despite the fact that sage thrashers are sagebrush obligates in the summer time, they migrate to southwestern deserts in the winter. They often congregate in juniper woodlands there. During winter months in particular, they may concentrate on eating the berries of junipers, currants, gooseberries, mistletoe and other fruit producers.

Sage thrashers are particular nesters. They choose the densest and tallest brush they can find to nest in or under, presumably as protection from predators. They often orient their nest to the east to capture the morning sun and afternoon shade.

If unpressured, sage thrashers will give nature enthusiasts quite a show chasing insects, singing from perches and occasionally performing flight displays: “singing while flying in low zigzag over brush, then alighting and holding the wings raised and fluttering for a moment. ( ).” Getting to know the sage thrasher is a real pleasure you shouldn’t pass up.

Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho