Monday, January 6, 2014

First Bird of the Year 2014: The Spotted Towhee

I gingerly drew open the shades on the morning of January 1, 2014, hoping that the First Bird of the Year would be something a little out of the ordinary. So I was very pleased to find that it was one of the birds we commonly see now that we live closer to the countryside--the feisty Spotted Towhee.

This species is an excellent bird in so many ways. For starters, it's just fun to say Spotted Towhee. (Admittedly, it was even more fun to say Rufous-sided Towhee back in the day when this bird was lumped together with its eastern cousin, now known quite boringly as Eastern Towhee. But nobody has asked me to take over the job of Official Namer of Birds, so I'm afraid Eastern Towhee is official.)

Adult Spotted Towhees also have fierce, blood-red eyes. Which are just the perfect touch for their absolutely outraged expressions. They are the original Angry Birds.

All the birds shown in this post were photographed through our back window as they visited our feeders.
The towhee's plumage is yet another big plus. The male is crisply attired in a black coat and hood speckled with white dots over a chestnut vest and white bib. (The female is, as usual in the bird world, more subtly dressed.) He really stands out when winter has turned the landscape tan and gray. He looks like he's been drawn with bold felt-tip markers on a watercolor background.

The word "towhee" is imitative in origin, though you wouldn't know it from listening to this western species; it's the Eastern Towhee who clearly says "toe-hee." Two other names for towhees based on this call note are chewink and jo-ree.

The Eastern Towhee also distinctly warbles "drink your TEA" when he sings in springtime. But others have heard the tune differently. Thoreau rendered it as "hip you, he-he-he-he." Nature writer Ernest Thompson Seton claimed the bird called "chuck-burr" and sang "pil-a-willa-will-awill."

The modern Sibley field guide says the eastern species sings "jink denk teeee" while the western species trills a Russian-looking "chzchzchzchzchz." To the ears of the nineteenth-century naturalist Thomas Nuttall, towhees called "par par" or "pay payay" and sang in a "monotonous and quaint warble."

No self-respecting female towhee would respond to any of these fellows no matter what they sang, so it's good that at least the towhees know what they're saying. Especially since our western Spotted Towhees don't enunciate the way their eastern kinfolk do. Here, the towhee's call is more of a rasping, catlike buzz, the song a truncated, trilled version of the lyric "drink your tea."

Despite all this chatter about chirps, the sound that's most likely to alert you to the presence of a towhee is the rustling of dry leaves as it scratches for food. A towhee typically sticks to low shrubs and the ground as it hunts for seeds, berries, insects, and other tidbits. It turns up hidden food with a quick one-two step in which it hops forward with both feet then immediately hops backward with its toes scraping the ground. The motion is a bit like doing the hokey-pokey while at a salad bar.

The towhee's ground-hugging, leaf-litter lifestyle has earned it names such as turkey sparrow, ground robin, and low-ground Stephen (and if I ever figure out where "low-ground Stephen" could possibly have originated, you will be the first to know).

In the 1920s, ornithologist William Leon Dawson lauded the towhee's lurking ways with some wonderfully purple prose: ""The Spotted Towhee bulks large in the economy of the underworld. He is, in fact, its acknowledged prince; not of course in the Mephistophelian sense, but as the undoubted aristocrat among those humble folk who skulk under dark ferns, thread marvelous mazes of interlacing sticks and stalks, sort over the leafy wastage of the careless trees, and understand the foundations of things generally."

The Spotted Towhees who visit our feeders don't appear to have read a single word of Dawson's tome, nor do they stick to the script of field guides. They boldly gobble up sunflower seeds in the wide-open spaces under the feeder, where seeds fall as the untidy house finches rummage and squabble. They peck and scratch beneath the suet feeder, too. But they also readily land on the feeders themselves, clutching the wire frames with their reptilian feet and flapping as needed to maintain their balance as they eat.

If they see you watching them, they don't scamper off to hide shyly in the undergrowth--they glare back with those glowing red eyes, looking as if they're seething with incomparable rage.

I can't find any folklore or proverbs associated with these birds, so I'll have to figure out for myself what seeing them augurs for the new year. Maybe it's "don't believe everything you read." Or maybe it's "don't always skulk out of sight--be bold and step into the limelight!"

Or maybe it's just "drink your tea."