Spotted towhee

Let’s start with this bird. The spotted towhee.

We’ve always pronounced it as though it rhymes with “dewy” but it turns out that it is probably rhymes with “doughy” instead. Just like I often pronounce the paint I work with “gohssh” instead of “gwash”. (Tomato, Tomahto.)

To add to my bewilderment, the Spotted Towhee was always called the “Rufous-sided Towhee” in my household, as apparently we were not with the times and in fact learning that the Rufous-sided Towhee is merely a “spotted” Towhee is something that left me a bit thunderstruck as I was putting together this piece. Evidently this was to differentiate it from the “Eastern” Towhee — which also has rufous sides and seems alike in every way apart from the relative lack of white spots. We find them interbreeding on the Great Plains, but otherwise we’ve decided to distinguish the regional plumage variation as a separate species.

This sort of thing is a bone of contention for my husband, who has less patience than I have for the finer points of taxonomy. To him, a sparrow is a sparrow, and sometimes when I look over a page of essentially identical birds with a little arrow pointing to the white patch touching a black stripe which is the diagnostic feature of that particular bird, I am inclined to agree with him.

Flickers have gone through an inverse transformation in my lifetime, a who-are-we-kidding-they-are-the-same-species shift, so I certainly allow for changes and, to a certain extent, laxity in classification. (Particularly for the home birder.)

Another example of the confusing world of fine print: the Towhee is technically a “New World” sparrow; we Americans apparently lump together all sorts of birds in the “sparrow” category — even bigger, different-seeming birds like our towhee. (Or other ground-shufflers like juncos.) In Europe, such birds are called “buntings”, whereas “sparrows” are chiefly what we refer to as “Old World” sparrows. (The only one of those we regularly have on this side of the pond is the ubiquitous “House Sparrow”, which is the little brown bird that steals your french fries, or attends political rallies.)

Furthermore, the buntings I know about — indigo bunting, painted bunting, lazuli bunting — are actually in the cardinal family are are themselves not buntings at all. And all of these birds can be generally referred to as “finches”.

(Do you see why I avoid getting too militant about classifications?)

For myself, I unscientifically think of towhees as the step between sparrows and jays, as they are quite large for a sparrow (nearly the same size as a robin, though more slender,) and have a raspy, jay-like call note that sounds like a big question mark.

(This sound, as well as the tumbling jumble of the house finch’s song make me immediately homesick.)

They like a good amount of cover, and as such particularly like our yard, what with the blackberry patch on the other side of the fence. In my childhood home they favored the low, wide juniper bushes. They are ground feeders, attracted to the mess the squirrel leaves behind when it gorges on the suet cake. They are the vacuum cleaners of the forest. They do a funny little shuffle-hop to uncover bugs and seeds from the leaf litter or, in wintery places, from under snow.

Towhees, like tigers, sport what offhand appear to be very daring colors that actually make them invisible in their preferred surroundings. In the bleak winter it can be a thrill to spot one. A combination of orangey, white, and black, topped only by red eyes and a very expressive tail. There is a nervous energy to the tail, leaving flashes of white with nearly every movement. Very often one simply looks for those tell-tale white flashes at the tail for identification. And fortunately they don’t really care what you call them