Rare Towhees spend the winter in Piney Woods

By Jay V. Huner
Journal Correspondent

Ever heard of a Ground Robin? This beautiful red-eyed, black-headed, black-winged, black-tailed bird has rufous-orange flanks and undertails. Its breast is white. Currently called an Eastern Towhee, this huge sparrow long-tailed favors dense cover and orients to the ground. It does, somewhat, resemble a robin. The female is a bit drabber than the dapper male.

During the current 2011-12 fall and winter season, birders across our region have encountered quite a few Spotted Towhees, the Eastern Towhee's western cousin. This species is so rare here that state bird records committees request detailed reports for this species. For some years, ornithologists actually classified both Spotted and Eastern towhees as variants of a common species called the Rufous-sided Towhee!

The Spotted Towhee has distinct white spots on its upper wings and backs. Its song is distinctly different from that of its eastern cousin. Most describe the song of the Eastern Towhee as sounding a bit like "Drink your tea, tea, tea, tea, tea, tea" - a sharp note followed by a trill. The song of the Spotted Towhee also has a sharp introductory note and trill but differs greatly from that of the Eastern Towhee.

A few Spotted Towhees are reported every winter but there is another towhee that is found once or twice at decade long intervals. This greenish-yellow sparrow-like bird has a bright rufous cap, bright green stripes on the edges of its wings, and a distinct white face mask and throat. The Green-tailed Towhee is a truly rare species east of central Texas in the winter and detailed reports are required by records committees.

Green-tailed Towhees have a song described as "weet chur" followed by a trill. Once heard, it cannot be mistaken for the songs of either Eastern or Spotted towhees.

So, what's the big deal about Spotted and Green-tailed towhees in the Piney Woods? Birders can go a lifetime without ever encountering either species in the region. I have been birding in this region for almost 15 years and only found these two birds here in the current winter season.

The two species of towhees breed in arid areas in the western USA and move southward and eastward to spend the winter, normally to the west of the piney woods in east Texas. Most ornithologists believe that the exceptionally severe drought last year throughout the Southwest and extending across the breadth of Texas forced the two towhees to move eastward to spend the winter. In fact, both species have been reported as far east as the Atlantic Coast.

The two western towhees will surely be gone from this region by mid-April, if not sooner. About that time, male Eastern Towhees will stop hiding in dense brushy habitat and sing from conspicuous perches high above the ground. Listen for the "Drink your tea, tea, tea, tea, ...." song in the early morning and watch closely. If you're patient, you will surely see these handsome Ground Robins.

Towhees are interesting birds to watch while feeding on the ground. A feeding bird hops forward and draws both feet back simultaneously exposing food items hidden beneath debris. This behavior is called "double scratching".

Jay V. Huner
428 Hickory Hill Drive
Boyce, Louisiana 71409
318-793-5529 -- piku1@suddenlink.net