A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.
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While I’ll admit that I like giving pet names to the wild animals that frequent our everyday lives, I am not in the habit of naming the birds that come and go from our feeders. Well, at least most of the time anyway. Take jays for instance, I can’t tell one jay from another. So, for a wild bird to earn a pet name, its personality must sparkle, and set it apart from the rest, which brings me to how I met Mr. Towhee.
Last spring, we saw an increase among the western spotted towhees, an increase that had gone from one pair to four. Adding to that, all four raised two to three broods with success, so it was pretty exciting!
The towhee is always alert for signs of danger, such as the ambushing sharp-shinned hawk, and the Cooper’s hawk that patrol and hunt our woods regularly. When one of these hawks is sighted, towhees and other birds dart to the cover of the sword ferns and shrubs where they hide until the coast is clear. I seem to trigger this same response when I step outdoors. The mere sight of me sends them scattering to the cover along South Bank.
If I’m to see the birds again, I must keep still and wait. Usually, five minutes is all it takes for them to resume life as usual. On this particular day, the first to emerge from their safe havens were the towhees—four towhees, all of them males. The first flitted past and landed on the bough of a cedar sapling, while a second towhee claimed a perch in a huckleberry shrub. Towhee’s three and four flew over the house and into the woods. Male towhees are territorial and pursue one another like juncos. Sometimes they chatter and flash their bold white tail spots. Their arguments, never too serious, end almost as quickly as they begin. So, after a brief squabble, the two males returned to their lookout perches and resumed their singing.
The song of the western spotted towhee is a trilling, buzzy call while the song of the eastern spotted towhee is clear and bright. While both the western and eastern towhee can sing its name (the eastern towhee also sings “drink your tea”) the western towhee often does not. Why this is is unclear.
Weeks had passed, and by the first week of September, when the last towhee chick had fledged, an adult towhee turned his attention on me. At first, I thought it was just one of those cool moments in nature that probably only happens once, but it happened time and again. Like before, when the towhees saw me, they fled, except for one. The towhee skittered towards me hailing a buzzy meeew, and flicking his tail and wings. It was like he was greeting me. As if to say, “Hi there! I’m Mr. Towhee!”
I’ve never seen a towhee act this way, and his behavior surprised me. Flattered by his buzzy greeting I answered back with my best bird whistles, which seemed to please him. To further show my gratitude, I took a peanut from my pocket, and dropped it in front of me. Mr. Towhee sung louder as he skittered closer, eyeing me with those piercing red eyes. He took the peanut, shell and all, and flew to the cover of the Oregon grape that grows along South Bank; a game he practices often, and one that we both enjoy.
It is Mr. Towhee’s unique behavior that allows me to recognize him. Should he one day stop, I’m afraid he’ll just be another feathered face in the crowd.
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