Le Conte’s Thrasher

Le Conte’s thrasher (Toxostoma lecontei) is a pale bird found in the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico. It prefers to live in deserts with very little vegetation, where it blends in with the sandy soils. Le Conte’s thrashers are nonmigratory birds that reside in the same territory annually. Although the species has been decreasing in certain areas of its range, in particular California, it still is abundant enough to not be considered for vulnerable status.
These birds are terrestrial and only fly occasionally. Both genders are heavily involved in the nest building, incubating, and brooding process, though each alternates with primary responsibility of the tasks. Le Conte’s thrashers frequently compete with species such as the northern mockingbird, loggerhead shrike and greater roadrunner, as well as being potential prey for the latter.
Le Conte’s thrasher has two species, of which the T. lecontei has a range into the Mojave Desert as well as other areas of south, central and eastern California, southwest Utah, and south central Arizona to northwestern Mexico (northeast Baja California and northwest Sonora).
Named after Dr. John Lawrence LeConte, an entomologist who eventually became president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Le Conte’s thrashers weigh from 1.9 to 2.6 ounces and are 9.6 to 11.4 inches in length. There is no sexual dimorphism within the species, with males in plumage, color and size indistinguishable from females. Their wings are typical of birds that are sedentary, short and rounded. The crown, back, shoulders, and rump of T. lecontei possess a sandy pale-gray color. The primaries and secondaries are grayish-brown. The retrices are of a darker gray brown that contrasts with the plumage. Lores and ear-coverts are a mottled gray brown. The throat is an off-whitish color of a darker stripe. The chest and belly is puffy gray, and the vent and uppertail coverts are of a warmer tint in contrast to the palish chest and belly. The underwing is both gray and buff, with a brown-chestnut iris, a black-sickle shaped bill, and legs that are nearly black.
This bird ranges from California as far west as the San Joaquin Valley through southern Nevada and southwestern Utah and central and southern Arizona, and is a resident species throughout its range. It resides in some of the harshest climates in its region, including the Sonoran Desert and the San Joaquin Valley, and where annual rainfall only averages 4 to 20 cm. The typical desert habitat consists of dunes, alluvial fans, and flat to gently rolling hills with shallow washes with sparse vegetation. The vegetation that it may utilize includes low vegetation such as saltbush, creosote, cholla cacti, and Mojave yucca..The range of altitude spans as low as 250 feet below sea level (in Death Valley) to as high as 5,000 feet, although 1,600 feet above sea level is the average.
The thrasher has had its population decline in certain regions of its range, notably the Coachella, Imperial and the San Joaquin Valley regions. Major reasons for its decline include urbanization, cultivation of land for livestock, oil and gas development, and fire with the increase of invasive species of grasses. Off road vehicle use is a minor factor, while military operations conducted in the region have been considered, but not properly researched. However, there are apparent areas of suitable acreage for the thrasher that have not been utilized, and its population in undisturbed regions appear to be more stable. The thrasher has been listed as a species of concern in the state of California.
Toxostoma lecontei is a highly terrestrial bird, and is only seen flying when nest building or feeding its young. It runs at a surprisingly fast pace, even at speeds to outpace a trotting horse. When it does run, its tail is generally held upward, exposing its buffy crissum. Le Conte’s thrasher is a ground forager, and will dig small pits in leaf litter or soil to find its prey. It is a monogamous species, and generally seen in pairs, and juveniles may form small parties from two to eight birds.
Its song is a large, prolonged outpouring of warbled phrases that can be repeated two or several times and can be heard from considerable distances, which is typical of the genus Toxostoma. The song starts softly, then increases in volume, and has a more measured delivery than that of the crissal thrasher. The song bouts have been compared to curve-billed thrashers, but are higher pitched and marked by clear intervals. The song is generally uttered from an exposed perch, and is generally heard either in the morning or in the evening, though it has been heard at night. Females also sing on occasion, in a manner similar to the juvenile male Le Conte’s. Calls include a short whistle note suuuweeee, hew-eep or pooh-ip, along with the double-noted whistling distress call.
This bird is omnivorous, eating arthropods such as beetles, scorpions, spiders, grasshoppers, butterflies, moth larvae, and small lizards and snakes. Eggs are also part of its diet, including those of its own species. Plant consumption includes seeds and berries. The LeConte’s conserve water as an adaptation to their arid habitat and obtain what they need from their food. While they generally do not have to drink, there has been one recorded instance of such an event.
The singing season typically begins in mid-autumn and peaks around late December and early January, when nest building begins. The nests are generally of a bulky build, with outer layer of twigs, a middle layer of twigs, grasses, and rootlets, and an inner layer of insulating materials such as fuzzy plant seeds, leaves or flowers. Feathers and artificial material have been used as well, but these instances are rare. Dense and thorny shrubs such as the saltbush are preferred sites, although artificial sites such as abandoned vehicles and heights as high as 7.5 feet with smoke trees have been used when the general distance of nests off the ground are usually only half as low. Both genders take part in nest building, although the participation of the male varies. Nest fidelity is generally observed with the species until one of the mates die. The territories of the nesting pairs may be adjacent to one another due to food sources, although conflicts are rarely had.
The egg dates generally range from February to the end of May in California, and in the Sonoran region from December to April, though dates have been listed as early as late January and as late as the latter part of June. The clutch size ranges from 2 to 5 eggs, but the number is generally 3-4. The eggs are large-sized and bluish-green that can may either contain various degrees of brown spotting or no markings. The eggs are generally laid once a day and incubation begins once the last egg is laid, and lasts from 14 to 20 days. The male generally provides the food for the female, as well as food for the young during the brooding stages. The female is more likely to incubate at night, however. If the nest is destroyed or preyed upon, a new one is generally built, as they can have up to three broods during the reproductive season.
The young are fed by both parents during the fledgling period, which can span from 12 to 20 days, and can be continued to be fed after for 15 to 18 days afterward, especially if the female is brooding the next clutch. At around 30 days old, the fledglings disperse, and may form small groups.
These birds defend their territory year-round, but males are generally less territorial in the summer months during molting and the fledgling dispersals. Males may give a visual display to intruding males by employing a head down position, showing off their crissum while simultaneously disappearing into a bush head first in a slow motion. Their territories are most actively defended from early December to early February. Potential competitors for food and nesting sites include the northern mockingbird, sage thrasher, loggerhead shrike, house finch, black-throated sparrow, cactus wren, and the greater roadrunner. They may share the same nesting shrub or tree with their competitors, such as the loggerhead shrike.
Occasionally Le Conte’s Thrashers are victims of bronzed cowbird parasitism, in which a female cowbird will lay her eggs in a Le Conte’s thrasher’s nest. If the Thrasher does not accept the cowbird’s eggs as her own, the cowbird may destroy the Le Conte’s eggs as a punishment in what ornithologists refer hypothesize as “Mafia” behavior.
Some of the predators of the eggs, young, and adults of this species include birds of prey, greater roadrunners, antelope squirrels, domestic cats, dogs, coyotes, and various snake species.

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