On a cold, gray, dreary, foggy, lightly icy day – like much of the last two weeks in January – four Eastern Towhees rustled in leaf litter on the ground in a tangled thicket of privet and other weedy faded shrubs and vines. Two were males, with dark red eyes and boldly patterned in black, red-orange and white; two females with the same overall pattern, but instead of black, a rich velvet-brown. Now and then one called cher-WINK
. They kicked up the litter vigorously, searching for seeds, fruits, insects, spiders and larvae. They don’t much look like sparrows, but are – big, plump, brightly colored sparrows with colorful songs and calls to match. Robust, lively and earthy, they looked warm in the middle of a cold, gray day, glowing like the colors of a welcome fire against the withered background of the deepest part of winter.
The area of thickets where I saw them has become a favorite stopping place for me these last couple of weeks – on the rare occasions when I’ve been home long enough to get outside for a walk. It’s a vacant lot just outside our subdivision, happily neglected, overgrown with weeds and vines and grass, with a large red, white and blue “commercial property for sale” sign planted right in the middle of it. It’s not particularly attractive even when the foliage is green, and right now it looks especially bedraggled – but a lot of birds seem to like it.
White-throated Sparrows and Song Sparrows join Towhees in feeding on the ground, often coming out to the roadside nearby to forage in the grass, and sometimes they sing. Brown Thrashers lurk deep in the tangles giving smack
calls loudly. There’s often the chatter of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet as it flits quickly, weaving through the bushes, the fussing of a Carolina Wren, the chatter of a Chickadee, or an Eastern Phoebe quietly stopping by to perch on a branch, wagging its tail. Usually there are at least a few Robins in the trees overhead, and the high, thin calls of a small flock of Cedar Waxwings.
Though Eastern Towhees are quite common in eastern North America, and a familiar bird around many yards, many details of its natural history remain poorly known, according to the species account in Birds of North America.
“Because the bird spends much of its time near or on the ground in dense habitats and scrubby growth . . . it is usually difficult to study . . . and deserves much additional study.”*
* Jon S. Greenlaw. 1996. Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus), The Birds of North America Online
(A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.