Feeding ecology and diet

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Thrushes are mostly generalists: They eat a wide variety of food, concentrating on what is most easily available at the time. This may include earthworms and larvae, beetles or other insects, berries, and fruit. Rock thrushes, however, entirely feed on animals.

The song thrush has become a specialist in finding snails, and smashes them open against a stone (an "anvil") to get at the soft, nutritious fleshy body. Song thrushes in Scotland look for snails on the rocky seashore, which may help the thrushes to survive in dry, hot summers when the ground is too hard for earthworms to be found and easily extracted. The use of anvils is restricted to a handful of thrush species worldwide, including the African thrush (Turdus pelios) and Malabar whistling-thrush (Myophonus horsfieldii).

American robins feed on the ground or in bushes; in winter they forage in large flocks. They advance across the ground in a series of short, bouncy hops, pausing to look and listen. They tilt their heads from side to side, looking for tell tale signs of a worm moving under the surface, then swing forwards to get at the prey with their bills. This is a typical thrush feeding habit. Blackbirds and the various Zoothera thrushes of North America and Asia are great diggers in leaf litter, scratching and tossing away leaves in a noisy performance. The Zoothera species has a curious up-and-down bobbing action while feeding. Blackbirds sometimes take tadpoles, and sometimes newts and tiny fish, from garden ponds. Bluebirds, however, take insects from leaves, usually while perched but sometimes in a hover, and also take flying insects with an aerial foray. They typically use a technique of dropping from a perch to the ground to pick up prey.

Some thrushes eat vast amounts of fruit and berries and excrete the seeds whole. These bird droppings are often responsible for the spread of shrubs and even parasitic plants such as mistletoe, whose seeds are deposited in tree bark in bird droppings. Townsend's solitaire helps disperse several species of juniper, mountain ash, and serviceberry.

In Europe, robins follow wild boars and other animals that forage in forests, and hop around the heaps of earth that are thrown up by moles, hoping to catch a worm or two. In exactly the same way, tame British robins have learned to follow gardeners and often literally hop at the feet of people as they turn over the soil of a flowerbed or prepare a vegetable patch. Robins remain territorial in winter and feed solitarily, even at bird tables and feeders, but these territorial barriers may be broken down by prolonged spells of severe weather, which force the robins to forget their differences for a time

Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) with young. (Photo by Laura Riley. Bruce Coleman Inc. Reproduced by permission.)

and get on with the business of surviving. In spring, robins, as do some other chats, may be seen feeding one another. This is an important part of the courtship behavior, probably with two main functions: It helps break down inhibitions and allows the pair to bond together and accept close contact, and it also helps the female to get sufficient nutritious food to develop a large and healthy clutch.

The flycatcher-thrushes and ant-thrushes (Neocossyphus) of South America are four species that perch for long spells on a branch, watching for prey, or hop on the ground ready to pick up prey flushed by columns of ants. The whistling-thrushes (Myophonus) forage at the edge of flowing streams. They eat more mollusks and crustaceans than most thrushes. Some island thrushes occasionally eat young birds and even the occasional small rodent.

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