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For the Birds: Eastern towhee pleasant bird, for sight and sound, by Chris Bosak

Eastern towhee

An eastern towhee perches on a branch in New England earlier this month.

I call it my towhee day and it has become an annual event for me.

I hit my local patch in mid April in hopes of seeing warbler after warbler. Instead, I see very few warblers but a lot of towhees. I’m still a bit early for full-on warbler season, but the towhees are back in force and staking out territory.

On this particular day, I saw a few blue-winged warblers and a lone black-and-white warbler. The insect-like song of the blue-winged warbler and squeaky wheel song of the black-and-white warbler were side notes as the calling and singing of towhees dominated the woods.

The sharp and quick, two-note call of the bird is where the “tow-hee” got its name. The song is often referred to as “drink your teaaa.”

One two occasions, a female towhee jumped into view first. She quickly jumped back into the thick ground cover only to be replaced by the male on the lookout perch.

The eastern towhee is one of the relatively few sexually dimorphic (male and female look different) bird species in which the female sports attractive plumage. Cardinals come to mind as another example. This is a matter of opinion, of course.

Most females of sexually dimorphic species are bland in color. That is by design, naturally, to help them remain concealed on nests. The flashy male, meanwhile, distracts predators.

Female eastern towhees are not necessarily flashy in color but they are elegantly decked out in light rusty brown and white plumage. The pattern of the plumage is similar to that of the males, which sport black, white and rusty brown sides. Those sides, present on male and female, gave the bird its former name of rufous-sided towhee.

The name was changed a few decades ago when the rufous-sided towhee was split into two species: eastern towhee and spotted towhee. Those field guides many of us grew up on — with species such as oldsquaw (long-tailed duck) and marsh hawk (northern harrier) — are becoming more antiquated each time we turn around.

Towhees are actually large sparrows. If you strip out the handsome plumage and larger size, you can see that towhees act like sparrows and spend a considerable amount of time on the ground or in thick brush.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology lists the eastern towhee as a species of “low concern” in terms of conservation status. That’s good news and my own personal observations can confirm that. Hopefully, the future is just as promising for this charismatic bird.

It was a pleasant early spring walk highlighted by the sights and sounds of the eastern towhee. Now bring on those warblers.

For the Birds runs Mondays in The Sentinel. Chris Bosak may be reached at chrisbosak26@gmail.com or through his website www.birdsofnewengland.com

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