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California thrasher now calls Talent home

Climate change — a controversial topic that is becoming less so by the day.

There’s no real doubt that climate is changing. Glaciers are vanishing around the world. Winter snowpacks in our region have been trending downward for decades.

And with these changes bird populations change. A hundred years ago, there were no black Phoebes in Oregon. Today a brief bike ride along the Bear Creek Greenway yields more than a half-dozen pairs scattered along the creek. Great-tailed grackles, once rare in California, are now abundant and, for the last decade, spilling into the Rogue Valley. No longer do they merit serious note among the birders of the valley.

I’ve speculated before about the next southerner to take up residence in the valley. Would it be the Lawrence’s goldfinch, black-chinned sparrow or Nuttall’s woodpecker? All have put in cameo appearances.

We don’t have an answer yet, but another species may be reaching for the title, the California thrasher. Thrashers are a relatively small family consisting of about three dozen species.

One side of the family is dominated by a variety of mockingbirds. The other is composed of thrashers. Thrashers are noted for their long, curved bills and habit of flicking leaves aside and raking the bill through leaf litter in search of insects and other invertebrates.

Both sides of the family are noted for their vocal talents. Not only are they talented singer/songwriters, but they are plagiarists as well. They mimic the songs and calls of other birds. Hence the family name of Mimidae.

This spring has been exciting for birders around the state. A California thrasher was discovered in the foothills behind Talent. I understand the bird has been around for several years, filling the neighborhood with exuberant serenades. Only this April did it come to the attention of area birders. Once posted on the birder’s hotline, it became an instant celebrity. Within 24 hours, birders from Portland made the pilgrimage down Interstate 5 to see the rare bird. It is only the sixth occurrence of this species in the state, despite small populations residing along the Klamath River not far into California. Unlike many birds, this one is a homebody that seldom strays.

Within a week, more than 50 birders visited the singer. I estimate, conservatively, that by now more than 200 people have entertained the neighbors living on this relatively quiet street just as the thrasher has entertained the birders. I say “entertain,” but I have the feeling that the residents of the neighborhood would rather have their quiet neighborhood back. Birders are enthusiastic and usually well-behaved, but enough is enough.

As for the thrasher, he just keeps singing from the top of his favorite tree. While thrashers (and mockingbirds) need little motivation to sing, I assume this thrasher is without a mate and wondering where all the female thrashers are. Even if this bird fails to find a mate, how long will it be before a couple more arrive establishing a beachhead somewhere in the county, adding one more species to Oregon’s list of breeding species.

If you are interested in learning more about bird sightings in the county, visit the Rogue Valley Audubon Society website and check out the Message Board, or for wider coverage, visit the American Birding Association website.

Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at janes@sou.edu.