By Bill Lawyer
A few of my “Right in Our Backyard” columns have somewhat stretched the definition of “backyard.”
Whelks, for example, can only be found in our backyard if it happens to be along the coast of Long Island Sound. Or someone placed it there as part of a shell collection.
But the subject of this column, the Eastern Towhee, was literally seen and heard on a recent spring afternoon in the bushes in my backyard about 20 feet from where I was sitting on the deck.
During these peak days of spring, there are so many birdsong serenades that it’s sometimes hard to distinguish one from another. I recognized cardinals, robins, woodpeckers, sparrows, wrens, and blue jays, to name a few.
But the one that caught my attention was the one sometimes referred to as the “drink your tea” bird. That’s because its most common, prominent call sounds like a mother bird insisting its young do so.
Just to confuse things, however, the bird’s name — towhee — comes from a different sound that it makes, which sounds sort of like “chu’wink” (accent on the second syllable).
We all know how colorful birds can be, particularly the males of the various species. This is certainly true of the towhees.
As the Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes it, adults have rufous sides, a white belly, and a long dark tail with white edges. The eyes are red, white for birds in the Southeast. Males have a black head, upper body, and tail; these parts are brown in the female. For the edification of birding beginners, more experienced birders like to refer to the color that Benjamin Moore calls “rusty red” as rufous.
Of all the species of sparrows in North America, towhees are one of the largest and most colorful, according to ornithologists. They’re certainly the most colorful I have ever seen. The sharp contrast of red, white and black is quite striking.
Serious birders sort sparrow families into “Old World” or “New World” categories — with towhees in the the latter.
Until recently, the towhees now named Eastern Towhees and Spotted Towhees were considered one species, the Rufous-Sided Towhee.
While sitting on the deck there were lots of birds flitting around, mainly coming and going from my neighbor’s bird feeder. But the singing towhee stayed out of sight, in among the shrubs. None of the birds seemed intimidated by my presence, or my giving in to the irresistible urge to imitate the “drink your tea” admonition.
Towhees are one of many species that are more dependent upon shrub landscapes than forests. The berries of more than 30 species of shrubs are highly important for such birds’ diet, according to the National Audubon Society.
Towhees also find lots to eat on the shrub-dominated forest floor, where they can feed on many kinds of invertebrates. These include insects, spiders, millipedes, centipedes, and snails.
Unfortunately, it appears as though towhees are not known to eat ticks, which would have been a nice deterrent to the spread of Lyme disease.
In fact, according to the staff of the Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History in York, South Carolina, Eastern Towhees are one of the most common attractors of ticks.
So the take-away of all this is that Towhees can be appreciated for their colorful plumage and their place in the environment from afar — right in our backyards. But “hands off.”
Female and male Eastern Towhees