Tangling with the Towhees

By Kenneth Turner Blackshaw

When I was 12 or so, prowling the scrub oaks between the airport and Surfside, I was suddenly confronted with a bird that just dazzled me. It was atop an oak and singing away, sort of a three syllable call with the last note strung out and higher. When you are a new birder, almost every bird can be a challenge to identify. This bird was showing mainly black since it was facing away from me. Then it turned a little sideways and I could see a rusty brown color below the wing and I'm thinking "robin". But even then I knew robins don't sing like that. Then it turned a little further and I realized the rusty color didn't go all the way across the breast. No, the center of the breast was white. I spent a long time with my old Roger Tory Peterson bird guide before I found the Rufous-sided Towhee toward the back of the book.

Many of you may be in the same boat. No one tells you about towhees, and yet here on Nantucket they dominate the scrub oak habitat throughout the summer. In early October, many of our summer towhees, now officially named Eastern Towhees, have left, but huge numbers of their cousins from farther north are passing through.

Towhees are a group of species that have undergone many splits and renames during my 50 years with them. Here in the northeast, they were known as Red-eyed Towhees for a while when the powers that be decided that the towhees with white eyes down in Florida were actually a separate species. Eye color is not the first thing the average observer notices, but if you are in southern Florida and you see an Eastern Towhee, that white eye jumps out at you and it's easy to understand why they were considered a separate species. Other towhee species now recognized include the Spotted Towhee and Green-tailed Towhee, which are found in Colorado and three species of rather brown towhees seen in the southwestern deserts.

Towhees love to feed on the ground and will seldom come up to a feeder. I see them hopping along under my feeders -- very energetically. Before they take a hop, one sees an almost psychedelic flash of brilliant white from the corners of their jet black tails. Female Towhees follow the same color pattern as the males except the black is replaced by a rich chocolate brown color.

Towhees are members of the finch family, characterized by their thick, seed-cracking bills. Other finches include cardinals, grosbeaks and all of the sparrows. These powerful bills are demonstrated well by how finches handle sunflower seeds. A tiny goldfinch can dissemble a sunflower seed with ease while our huge Blue Jays have to wedge them into bark and bang away at them to open them up.

Towhees are also industrious scratchers. Often when hiking along the bike path, you may hear the sounds of scrub oak leaves being tossed around and this is your first clue there is a Towhee around. If you can actually approach without frightening them away, you will see them tossing leaves behind them so vigorously they look almost like burrowing dogs. This is how they find breakfast, lunch, and dinner, 70% seeds and 30% insect matter.

Even though our Towhees are not singing now, they are still vocal. The air often rings with the sound of their nasal "chewink call notes. This is actually the colloquial name many folks call them. When they arrive back here in early May, they immediately set up territory and mark it with their exuberant song "Drink your Teaeeeeeee". This is the most typical pattern although you'll hear some get stuck on just "Drink your" or others that add a bunch of syllables on the front so you get something like "Drink up all of your Teaeeeeeee". It is not unusual to have five or six males all within earshot of one another, defining their territorial presence.

Towhees are common on Nantucket through the middle of October and then taper off and become very difficult to find through the winter. Their retiring habits complicate matters. Sometimes during a bleak January day it seems like life is completely removed from the scrub oak landscape. A birder will make a squeaking sound to call in birds and the "chewink" sound will respond from deep in the tangles. Often that is the only sign you will get that Towhees are hanging in there, but it is enough, reminding us that in a few months we will be hearing "Drink your Teaeeeeeee" again.

If you enjoy social birding, every Sunday a group meets in the parking lot in front of the Nantucket High School at 8 a.m.

To hear about rare birds, or to leave a bird report call the Massachusetts Audubon hot line at 888-224-6444.