As Winter sets in I can’t help but reflect how quickly Fall passed. As with each season there are always regrets and always delights to be tucked away. No, not all my Fall leaves are raked. That’s the regret but the delight is my busyness or lack of prioritizing is a good thing for our local wildlife and one bird in particular, the Eastern Towhee. The family is Emberizidae, more commonly known as the sparrow family. Towhees are the largest of the emberizids sporting stout bills, long tails and slightly rounded wings.
On the first day of winter, this harbinger returned to my forgotten garden reminding me of the seasonal change. Since that first day he appears almost daily arriving to forage among the brushy habitat. Interestingly, this tri-colored bird is rarely seen on cloudy days. It truly seems to enjoy the warmth of sunshine. About midmorning on the sunnier days, I find myself peaking out the window and rewarded with a sighting of this nearly robin-sized bird foraging at ground level. He’s quite easy to identify because of his attractive black head, throat, and back, and brilliant red eyes, along with his rusty-red sides oftentimes referred to as rufous-sided which boldly contrasts with his white belly. The more experienced birder will notice the white patch at the base of the primaries. Females are similar in markings, feathered in warm brown where the males sport solid black.
In addition to the brilliant coloration, the Eastern Towhee is easily recognized because he loves to dance among the forgotten leaves and garden debris. He will jump forward with both feet sweeping backward moving debris aside all the while the upper body remains fairly stationary. Then just as quickly returns to a normal stance. This method of foraging for seeds and insects is referred to as double-scratching. Quite a feat I’d say.
Some of our larger sparrows, also members of the Emberididae family, forage in the same style. The American Tree Sparrow and the Vesper Sparrow are just two larger sparrows you might see performing the double-scratch.
Here in Eastern Virginia the Eastern Towhee is a year-round resident. However, he seems to enjoy the abandoned garden outside my home office window best in winter. A few years back my summer vacation took me to the beautiful Biltmore estate in Asheville, NC. While walking down a forested path, I was drawn to the recognizable loud chewink flight call of the Eastern Towhee. When he rested on a nearby branch I remained for a few minutes hoping to be serenaded. Sure enough, within a moment the nasally drink your tea was heard throughout the woodland.
Even though Winter has set in, it’s days are already numbered and the Eastern Towhee will soon start it’s Spring time courtship. This small yet eye-catching bird lives mainly east of the Mississippi and will nest throughout both the northern and southern states. For all you folks who love cats, this bird is just one excellent reason to keep your feline friend indoors. The Eastern Towhee often build their nest directly on the ground under a small bush. If built off the ground it’s usually no higher than 5’. Both male and female collect building material, however, she does the design work. When gathering nesting material the pair will stay within a radius of 60’ of their chosen building site. Guess that’s another good reason to not be so fussy with cleaning my garden beds come this Spring.