Walden and the Brown Thrasher, Which is Not a Thrush

I bought myself a Dover Thrift Edition of Walden; or Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau for $3.81 CAD. I had an old copy years ago but gave it away and I wanted a copy of my own. I sometimes find Thoreau a bit opinionated and arrogant, even prone to nasty comments about people of foreign culture, but he has some delightful things written about life and nature too.

I turned randomly to a bit and got this in the chapter titled The Bean-Field:

Near at hand, upon the topmost spray of a birch, sings the brown thrasher—or red mavis, as some love to call him—all the morning, glad of your society, that would find out another farmer’s field if yours were not here. While you are planting the seed, he cries,—“Drop it, drop it,—cover it up, cover it up,—pull it up, pull it up, pull it up.” But this was not corn, and so it was safe from such enemies as he. You may wonder what his rigmarole, his amateur Paganini performances on one string or on twenty, have to do with your planting, and yet prefer it to leached ashes or plaster. It was a cheap sort of top dressing in which I had entire faith.

I really liked that. I became curious about the name “red mavis” as we have Brown Thrashers occasionally in our garden so wanted to look this up. “Mavis” comes from the Old French mauvis which has an obscure origin but may come from the word mauve, which makes sense because of the reddish colouring, although mauve is a reddish purple colour rather than reddish brown. Who knows? I knew a fellow who called goldfinches “yellow chickadees;” such strange attachments happen when people take a notion to name things in the natural world.

Another species, the Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos), was sometimes called a mavis, but our Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) is different. The Brown Thrasher is more closely related to Catbirds and Mockingbirds rather than thrushes, as described in Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies.

I can see where in the looser confines of generic description, this might be misidentified as a mavis and then specified as red because of its rufous shading. Mavis is one of those very old and quaint words that we only know today as a name given to girls rather than birds.

Things change, words are lost to time.



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