Crissal Thrasher on rocky ground

Before we get started I’d like to congratulate the Whiskey Jack on becoming the National Bird of Canada! The Gray Jay (once also, and perhaps again, known as the Canada Jay) inspired this feature, so I owe it a deep debt of gratitude. Now on with the show…

I always sort of assumed that the Crissal Thrasher was named for a Mr. Crissal, a long-dead ornithologist, perhaps a buddy or a rival of Mr. Bendire or Mr. LeConte. After all, when bird names seem random, the blame is often to be placed on the nepotism or self-aggrandizement of the ornithologists of yore.

But not always!

Sometimes the blame is on ornithologists having no imagination at all. According to Bent, the Crissal Thrasher was once known as the red-vented thrasher, a name from the Yellow-rumped Warbler school of nomenclature and perhaps even more embarrassing. Crissal, derived from the Latin crissum for the feathers of the area around the cloacal opening, is simply a veil of classical learning thrown over the fact that this is a bird named after the patch of bright(ish) color on its lower behind. A hypothetical Mr. Crissal would never have become an ornithologist in the 1800s, as he would have been teased mercilessly from his first day in Bird School.

What about the thrasher part though? Surely this returns some dignity to the poor bird, suggesting a pugnacious spirit honed by life in its desert habitat? Alas, no. The all-knowing Wikipedia suggests that the name comes from the sound the eastern Brown Thrasher makes while flailing through the underbrush for food, but of course every non-obvious bird name has at some point been linked to the sound the bird makes. Ray Reedman attributes it instead to the long-way-round evolution of the Latin turdus into the English thrush by way of pre-Germanic languages and the British folk-name throstle for the Mistle Thrush. Given the Brown Thrasher‘s spotted belly and ground-dwelling habits it’s not hard to see how early European colonizers may have lumped it in with the thrushes, its true taxonomy aside.

So, for the unfortunate Red-butted Thrush, Crissal Thrasher is a step up in the naming world after all.

Feature image by John J. Mosesso, NBII.

Written by Carrie
Carrie Laben, after years of writing and birding in New York, moved to Montana to pursue her two great passions more effectively. She recently graduated with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Montana in Missoula. When she is not cranking out essays and speculative fiction stories, or wandering around on mountains failing to see the birds she is looking for, she is likely to be drinking one of the many fine local microbrews or attending a potluck with something from the local farmer’s market in hand. On Mondays from 3 to 3:30 Mountain Time you can find her answering questions about birds on live chat at