By Dan Weisz
A neighbor who lives a block from me has a cholla cactus that has hosted a Curve-billed Thrashers’s nest several years in a row. On a recent walk I noticed a new nest appeared to be active again this year. Here is the cholla.
Later in the day, I drove over to my neighbor’s house and parked in the street with a view of the nest. Using the car as a “blind” and remaining inside, I knew that the Curve-billed Thrashers were likely to not even know I was there. An automobile does not look like a predator to a bird. I watched the Thrashers from inside the car while they were hard at work.
Very quickly I began to see a pattern of Curve-billed Thrashers bringing food to the nest. There were a variety of items, some recognizable as insects and some, like in the photo below, unrecognizable to me but an obvious treat for a Curve-billed Thrasher.
The Thrashers appeared about every ten minutes. They would hop onto the top of the cholla, look around, and then drop down to the nest area to feed the two chicks in the nest. You can see two open mouths hoping to receive something to eat.
I was excited to see one of the Thrashers appear with a very tiny lizard. The Thrasher landed on a nearby rock, then hopped up to an agave stalk and then over to the cholla.
This is a close-up of the Curve-billed Thrasher on the agave stalk. With that large ‘decurved’ beak and those large eyes, Curve-billed Thrashers always seem to have a grumpy look
Yet another bug for the young. Curve-billed Thrashers will eat seeds, fruit and insects. Young birds need protein to grow quickly so insects (and lizards and perhaps other very small creatures) are favored food items at this stage. Besides the long curved bill, Curve-billed Thrashers are known for being gray/brown all over with a white throat and spotted belly. Those long curved bills are a great tool for probing into cacti, and for digging through ground cover and vegetation probing for food.
Saguaros have finished most of their flowering and now the fruit is ripening. This Thrasher found some good red saguaro fruit and seeds to feed its hatchlings.
From inside my car, I could not see deeply into the nest. But when either of the parents arrived with food, they dropped into the nest quickly and two hungry bills filled the air. You can imagine hearing them begging “me, me, choose me!”. The inside of young birds throats are often bright orange to give the parent birds an easy target to stuff food into.
Both parents were busy caring for the young. Males and Female Curve-billed Thrashers look alike. When only one bird brought food to the nest and then flew off, I couldn’t know which parent was which. Often though, one bird would feed the young and then wait atop the cholla for the other to show up. That’s how I knew that both parents were taking care of the young.
Here is yet another different food item. I wasn’t sure what it was. This rock was one of the staging spots for a Thrasher to land on before heading up to the cholla.
With a bee (?) in its bill, the Thrasher seems triumphant. Cholla cacti provide a very protected spot for a nest. Birds like the Thrashers are so light (weighing 2-3 ounces) they can land on cactus spines without applying enough force to get impaled. Plus, they spread their toes out and they land very gently. In some cases, it’s like the yogi sleeping-on-a-bed-of-nails thing. Nobody gets hurt in the process.
The young Curve-billed Thrashers fledged three days later. Another neighbor reported an empty nest on that day. Curve-billed Thrasher young fledge (leave the nest) at 14-18 days from hatching. They grow very fast but will still be dependent on parents to feed them for another three weeks before beginning their independent lives.