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Sage Thrasher -
Species of Concern Native Species Global Rank
Agency Status USFWS
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The Sage Thrasher is North America's smallest thrasher with a relatively short bill and tail. Its long, melodious, mockingbird-like song, originally earned it the name of Mountain Mockingbird (Reynolds et al. 1999). Genetic work indicates this species may, in fact, be more closely related to the mockingbirds (
) than to other thrashers (Sibley and Ahlquist 1984). The Sage Thrasher, considered a sagebrush obligate species, is dependent upon large, unfragmented sagebrush habitats for breeding (Reynolds et al. 1999).
For a comprehensive review of the conservation status, habitat use, and ecology of this and other Montana bird species, please see
Marks et al. 2016, Birds of Montana.
Migrants arrive in Montana in late April through mid-May (Montana Bird Distribution Committee 2012). Records of adults incubating and feeding nestlings have been recorded in early June. Observations of adults feeding fledged young have been recorded from July through August.
The bill and tail of this thrasher are relatively short compared to those of other thrashers. Sexes are similar in plumage characteristics with males slightly larger than females. Adults are brownish-grey with some indistinct dark streaking on the back and crown. A dark streak through the eye separates the upper and lower lighter areas of the face. The cheek is also light with a darker line present along the sides of the throat. The bill is dark and short, and the eyes are yellow to amber in color. Underparts are generally off-white with bold dark marks (Reynolds et al. 1999).
Western Hemisphere Range
The distribution of the Sage Thrasher is dependent upon the presence of appropriate sagebrush habitat. In Montana, this species primarily occurs in the southwest, south-central, and south-eastern portions of the state.
Observations in Montana Natural Heritage Program Database
Number of Observations:
(Click on the following maps and charts to see full sized version)
Map Help and Descriptions
SUMMER (Feb 16 - Dec 14)
Direct Evidence of Breeding
Indirect Evidence of Breeding
No Evidence of Breeding
WINTER (Dec 15 - Feb 15)
Not Regularly Observed
(Observations spanning multiple months or years are excluded from time charts)
The Sage Thrasher is a short-distance migrant (Reynolds et al. 1999). In Montana, adults arrive on the breeding grounds from April 25 to May 15, with fall migration from July 30 to August 15.
In Montana, the Sage Thrasher breeds in habitats dominated by Big Sagebrush. Sage Thrasher abundance is positively correlated with sagebrush cover and negatively correlated with grass cover. The Sage Thrasher uses sagebrush habitats, grasslands, and other semi-arid habitats during spring and fall migration and tends to avoid areas of human habitation (Reynolds et al. 1999).
Ecological Systems Associated with this Species
Details on Creation and Suggested Uses and Limitations
How Associations Were Made
We associated the use and habitat quality (common or occasional) of each of the 82 ecological systems mapped in Montana for
vertebrate animal species that regularly breed, overwinter, or migrate through the state by:
Using personal observations and reviewing literature that summarize the breeding, overwintering, or migratory habitat requirements of each species (Dobkin 1992, Hart et al. 1998, Hutto and Young 1999, Maxell 2000, Foresman 2012, Adams 2003, and Werner et al. 2004);
Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species' range and habitat requirements;
Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point observation database associated with each ecological system;
Calculating the percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system to get a measure of "observations versus availability of habitat".
Species that breed in Montana were only evaluated for breeding habitat use, species that only overwinter in Montana were only evaluated for overwintering habitat use, and species that only migrate through Montana were only evaluated for migratory habitat use.
In general, species were listed as associated with an ecological system if structural characteristics of used habitat documented in the literature were present in the ecological system or large numbers of point observations were associated with the ecological system.
However, species were not listed as associated with an ecological system if there was no support in the literature for use of structural characteristics in an ecological system,
point observations were associated with that system.
Common versus occasional association with an ecological system was assigned based on the degree to which the structural characteristics of an ecological system matched the preferred structural habitat characteristics for each species as represented in scientific literature.
The percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system was also used to guide assignment of common versus occasional association.
If you have any questions or comments on species associations with ecological systems, please contact the Montana Natural Heritage Program's Senior Zoologist.
Suggested Uses and Limitations
Species associations with ecological systems should be used to generate potential lists of species that may occupy broader landscapes for the purposes of landscape-level planning.
These potential lists of species should not be used in place of documented occurrences of species (this information can be requested at:
) or systematic surveys for species and evaluations of habitat at a local site level by trained biologists.
Users of this information should be aware that the land cover data used to generate species associations is based on imagery from the late 1990s and early 2000s and was only intended to be used at broader landscape scales.
Land cover mapping accuracy is particularly problematic when the systems occur as small patches or where the land cover types have been altered over the past decade.
Thus, particular caution should be used when using the associations in assessments of smaller areas (e.g., evaluations of public land survey sections).
Finally, although a species may be associated with a particular ecological system within its known geographic range, portions of that ecological system may occur outside of the species' known geographic range.
Adams, R.A. 2003. Bats of the Rocky Mountain West; natural history, ecology, and conservation. Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado. 289 p.
Dobkin, D. S. 1992. Neotropical migrant land birds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. USDA Forest Service, Northern Region. Publication No. R1-93-34. Missoula, MT.
Foresman, K.R. 2012. Mammals of Montana. Second edition. Mountain Press Publishing, Missoula, Montana. 429 pp.
Hart, M.M., W.A. Williams, P.C. Thornton, K.P. McLaughlin, C.M. Tobalske, B.A. Maxell, D.P. Hendricks, C.R. Peterson, and R.L. Redmond. 1998. Montana atlas of terrestrial vertebrates. Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, University of Montana, Missoula, MT. 1302 p.
Hutto, R.L. and J.S. Young. 1999. Habitat relationships of landbirds in the Northern Region, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station RMRS-GTR-32. 72 p.
Maxell, B.A. 2000. Management of Montana's amphibians: a review of factors that may present a risk to population viability and accounts on the identification, distribution, taxonomy, habitat use, natural history, and the status and conservation of individual species. Report to U.S. Forest Service Region 1. Missoula, MT: Wildlife Biology Program, University of Montana. 161 p.
Werner, J.K., B.A. Maxell, P. Hendricks, and D. Flath. 2004. Amphibians and reptiles of Montana. Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company. 262 p.
Commonly Associated with these Ecological Systems
Shrubland, Steppe and Savanna Systems
Occasionally Associated with these Ecological Systems
Forest and Woodland Systems
Wetland and Riparian Systems
During the breeding season, eats insects primarily, with a small percentage comprised of other arthropods and some plant material. Will also eat berries and small fruits if available. This species generally forages on the ground (Reynolds et al. 1999).
Sage Thrashers are known to reject cowbird eggs (Reynolds et al. 1999).
Nesting occurs soon after arrival on the breeding grounds. Nests are most commonly placed deep within or under big sagebrush or three-tip sagebrush. Nest is bulky and constructed of twigs and lined with grasses and animal fur. Clutch size averages 4-5 eggs, and eggs are incubated by both sexes. Incubation period ranges from 11-17 days. Both sexes brood and feed nestlings. Nestling period ranges from 10-14 days. Both parents continue to feed young at least one week after fledging (Reynolds et al. 1999).
The Sage Thrasher requires large, continuous stands of Big Sagebrush. Protection and conservation of large, intact sagebrush stands with high structural complexity is critical to maintaining habitats for the Sage Thrasher (Reynolds et al. 1999). The recent
Greater Sage-Grouse Habitat Conservation Strategy
developed for Montana may also assist in the conservation and management of other sagebrush obligates, including the Sage Thrasher.
Threats or Limiting Factors
Loss or fragmentation of intact sagebrush landscapes due to fire, residential development, or conversion to agriculture will reduce or eliminate habitat for Sage Thrashers during the breeding season (Reynolds et al. 1999).
Literature Cited Above
Legend: View Online Publication Marks, J.S., P. Hendricks, and D. Casey. 2016. Birds of Montana. Arrington, VA. Buteo Books. 659 pages. Montana Bird Distribution Committee. 2012. P.D. Skaar's Montana bird distribution. 7th Edition. Montana Audubon, Helena, Montana. 208 pp. + foldout map. Sibley, C.G. and J.E. Ahlquist. 1984. The relationships of the starlings (Sturnidae: Sturnini) and the mockingbirds (Sturnidae: Mimini). Auk 101:230-243. Additional References
Legend: View Online Publication Do you know of a citation we're missing? American Ornithologists’ Union [AOU]. 1998. Check-list of North American birds, 7th edition. American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, D.C. 829 p. Atkinson, E.C. 1992. Ferruginous hawk (Buteo regalis) inventories on the Dillon Resource Area of southwest Montana: 1992. Montana Natural Heritage Program for Bureau of Land Management, Dillon Resource Area. 34 pp. Bent, A. C. 1948. Life histories of North American nuthatches, wrens, thrashers, and their allies. U.S. National Museum Bulletin No. 195. Cameron, E. S. 1908. The birds of Custer and Dawson counties, Montana. Auk 25:39-56. Cannings, R.J. 1992. Status report on the sage thrasher Oreoscoptes montanus in Canada. Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. 24 pp. Casey, D. 2000. Partners in Flight Draft Bird Conservation Plan Montana. Version 1.0. 287 pp. Chalfoun, A. 2005. Habitat use and quality for non-game shrub-steppe birds, Final performance report Clawson, M.R. 199. An investigation of factors that may affect nest success in CRP lands and other grassland habitats in an agricultural landscape. M.Sc. Thesis. Bozeman, MT: Montana State University. 45 p. Dobkin, D. S. 1992. Neotropical migrant landbirds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. U.S.D.A. For. Serv. N. Region Publ. R1-93-34. Missoula, Mont. Dobkin, D.S. 1994. Conservation and management of neotropical migrant landbirds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. Univ. Idaho Press, Moscow, Idaho. 220 pp. Econ, Inc., Helena, MT., 1978, Peabody Coal Company Big Sky Mine, Rosebud County, MT. Wildlife and wildlife habitat monitoring study. Proj. 190-85-A. December 31, 1978. Ehrlich, P., D. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The birder’s handbook: a field guide to the natural history of North American birds. Simon and Schuster Inc. New York. 785 pp. Feist, F. G. 1968. Breeding-bird populations on sagebrush-grassland habitat in central Montana. Audubon Field Notes 22(6):691-695. Fink, D., K.V. Rosenberg, F.A. La Sorte, M.J. Iliff, C. Wood, and S. Kelling. 2013. Species distribution modeling of priority bird species on Bureau of Land Management lands to determine stewardship responsibility for conservation planning. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 224 p. Gillihan, SW. and T. VerCauteren. 2015. Pocket Guide to Prairie Birds. Brighton, CO: Bird Conservancy of the Rockies. 91 p. Gniadek, S. 1983. Southwest Glendive Wildlife Baseline Inventory. Miles City, Mont: Bureau of Land Management, Miles City District Office. 56 pp with appendices. Goodell, J. 2012. Morse Land Company Breeding Bird Inventory And Analysis. High Desert Museum. Bend, OR. 42 pp + Appendices. Hays, R., R.L. Eng, and C.V. Davis (preparers). 1984. A list of Montana birds. Helena, MT: MT Dept. of Fish, Wildlife & Parks. Hendricks, P. 2000. Roadside bird counts on BLM lands in Petroleum and Fergus Counties, Montana. Montana Natural Heritage Program, Helena, MT. 57pp. Hendricks, P. and M. Roedel. 2001. A faunal survey of the Centennial Valley Sandhills, Beaverhead County, Montana. Report to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Montana Natural Heritage Program, Helena, MT. 44 p. Hendricks, P., G.M. Kudray, S. Lenard, and B.A. Maxell. 2007. A Multi-Scale Analysis Linking Prairie Breeding Birds to Site and Landscape Factors Including USGS GAP Data. Helena, Mont: Montana Natural Heritage Program. Johnsgard, P.A. 1979. Birds of the Great Plains: breeding species and their distribution. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln. 539 pp. Johnsgard, P.A. 1992. Birds of the Rocky Mountains with particular reference to national parks in the northern Rocky Mountain region. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. xi + 504 pp. Joslin, Gayle, and Heidi B. Youmans. 1999. Effects of recreation on Rocky Mountain wildlife: a review for Montana. [Montana]: Montana Chapter of the Wildlife Society. Kantrud, H.A. 1982. Maps of distribution and abundance of selected species of birds on uncultivated native upland grasslands and shrubsteppe in the northern Great Plains. U.S. Dept. Int., Fish and Wildl. Serv. FWS/OBS-82/31. 31 p. Knopf, F.L. 1986. Changing landscapes and the cosmopolitism of the eastern Colorado avifauna. Wildlife Society Bulletin 14(2):132-142. Lenard, S., J. Carlson, J. Ellis, C. Jones, and C. Tilly. 2003. P. D. Skaar's Montana bird distribution, 6th edition. Montana Audubon, Helena, MT. 144 pp. Oechsli, L.M. 2000. Ex-urban development in the Rocky Mountain West: consequences for native vegetation, wildlife diversity, and land-use planning in Big Sky, Montana. M.Sc. Thesis. Montana State University, Bozeman. 73 p. Pitkin, P. and L. Quattrini. 2017. Pocket Guide to Sagebrush Birds. Bird Conservancy of the Rockies and Point Blue Conservation Science. 68 p. Powder River Eagle Studies, Inc., Gillette, WY., 1995, Spring Creek Mine 1994 Wildlife Monitoring Studies. 4/94 to 4/95. Spring Creek Coal Company 1995 Mining Annual Report. Appendix I. May 1995. Powder River Eagle Studies, Inc., Gillette, WY., 1996, Spring Creek Mine 1995 Wildlife Monitoring Studies. Spring Creek Coal Company 1995-1996 Mining Annual Report. Vol. I, App. I. May 1996. Powder River Eagle Studies, Inc., Gillette, WY., 1997, Spring Creek Mine 1996 Wildlife Monitoring Studies. February 1997. Powder River Eagle Studies, Inc., Gillette, WY., 2002, Spring Creek Mine 2001 Wildlife Monitoring. March 2002 Ralph, J.C., J.R. Sauer, and S. Droege. 1995. Monitoring bird populations by point counts. Gen. Tech. Rep. PSW-GTR-149. Albany, CA: USDA Pacific Southwest Research Station. 181 p. Reichel, J.D., D.L. Genter and E. Atkinson. 1992. Sensitive animal species in the Elkhorn and Big Belt Mountains of the Helena National Forest. Unpublished report to the Helena National Forest. Montana Natural Heritage Program, Helena. 158 p. Reynolds, T.D., T.D. Rich, and D.A. Stephens. 1999. Sage Thrasher ( Oreoscoptes montanus). Species Account Number 463. The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca, NY: Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology; Retrieved 3/25/2008 from The Birds of North America Online database Richmond, C.W. and F.H. Knowlton. 1894. Birds of south-central Montana. Auk 11:298-308. Ryder, R.A. 1972. Avian population studies on the Pawnee site, 1968-1971. Fort Collins, CO: Colorado State University. Grassland Biome, U.S. International Biological Program, Tech. Rep. 57 p. Saunders, A. A. 1912. A horseback trip across Montana. Condor 14(6):215-220. Sibley, D. 2014. The Sibley guide to birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY. 598 pp. Skaar, P. D., D. L. Flath, and L. S. Thompson. 1985. Montana bird distribution. Montana Academy of Sciences Monograph 3(44): ii-69. Skaar, P.D. 1969. Birds of the Bozeman latilong: a compilation of data concerning the birds which occur between 45 and 46 N. latitude and 111 and 112 W. longitude, with current lists for Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, impinging Montana counties and Yellowstone National Park. Bozeman, MT. 132 p. Thompson, L.S. 1981. Circle West wildlife monitoring study: Third annual report. Technical report No. 8. Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. Helena, Montana. U.S. Forest Service. 1991. Forest and rangeland birds of the United States: Natural history and habitat use. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service Agricultural Handbook 688. 625 pages. Watts, C.R. and L.C. Eichhorn. 1981. Changes in the birds of central Montana. Proceedings of the Montana Academy of Sciences 40:31-40. White, C.M., N.J. Van Lanen, D.C. Pavlacky Jr., J.A. Blakesley, R.A. Sparks, J.M.Stenger, J.A. Rehm-Lorber, M.F. McLaren, F. Cardone, J.J. Birek and D.J. Hanni. 2011. Integrated monitoring of bird conservation regions (IMBCR): 2010 Annual Report. Brighton, CO: Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory. 387 p. Web Search Engines for Articles on "Sage Thrasher"
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