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Cori Brown: What kind of robin is that, anyway?

The Eastern Towhee is a beautiful but shy bird who lives in deep brush.
The Eastern Towhee is a beautiful but shy bird who lives in deep brush. (Cori Brown photo)

Years ago when I started doing some serious birding, I saw what I thought was a robin in the woods. It had the typical robin colors, sooty black and rusty orange, but it was doing strange things.

It was scratching around in the dead leaves with ferocity.

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I am used to seeing robins yanking worms out of the lawn. This was weird behavior. When I heard its call and it turned toward me, this is when I realized this was not a robin at all. What the heck was it?

Out came the field guides. The size was about the same, maybe a bit smaller. The side view said robin but when he turned I could see a black hood down to his chest and a white belly. It was my first Eastern Towhee (formerly known as the Rufous-sided Towhee).

If I had been paying more attention, the call would have been a dead giveaway. In bird language the call sounds like it is saying chewink. Its song is even better: drink your tea-e-e-e.

Once I figured out this mystery, it was time to learn more about this bird. It turns out that towhees may look a bit like robins but are not in the robin family at all.

Much to my surprise, they are part of the new world sparrow family. All I can say is that they look nothing like their cousins such as chipping sparrows or song sparrows. They are a third larger than these sparrows and twice as heavy. So much for family resemblance!

Then there’s the weird towhee name. Does he “tow” things around? Where does the “hee” part come in? Here was another mystery.

When I looked it up, it forced me back to my grammar days. The word onomatopoeia popped up in association with the bird’s chewink call.

Oh boy, I remember hearing this term but had no idea what it meant anymore.

It means that the word imitates the natural sound that it makes. Common examples include tweet and meow. I hate to admit it, but I am not getting the connection here between chewink and towhee. It’s too bad that the Englishman who named this bird is not here to explain this to me!

Meanwhile, as is my custom, I am now in pursuit of getting some good photos of this shy bird. This is not easy to do. They love thick brush and vines and piles of leaves. Sneaking up on them without cracking twigs or crunching leaves is nearly impossible.

If I had a dollar for every bad photo I’ve taken of a towhee (and there are many), my friends and I could have multiple lunches and dessert at one of my favorite restaurants, Jeannie Bird Baking Co. (not only do they have great food but the name is perfect for a birder like me, too).

As is common with a lot of wildlife photography, a good photo becomes a lesson in patience, solitude and quiet determination.

A few weeks ago, I put the lesson into practice again and this time it paid off. At the top of our hill just barely over our fence into the neighbor’s yard, I heard a now familiar rustling sound.

There was the towhee doing his jump up, double foot scratch back dance for food among a tangle of thick vines and bushes. I stood still for at least half an hour leaning on a tree, camera at the ready, while he busied himself with whatever he could find at the fill’er up station beneath his feet.

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He was so intent on the task at hand that he didn’t even seem to care that I was there. These are magic moments when wild birds are at their best doing what they do naturally without fear. Though I didn’t get shots of him doing his dinner dance, I did get some beautiful portraits.

For me, this is what I call the Zen zone. Conditions were perfect for capturing this bird on his terms. It was the ultimate compliment to be able to share a moment in time and space with him.

As I write this, it is the first day of spring. It sure doesn’t feel like it with more than a nip of cold in the air. Even worse, that four letter word s-n-o-w is in the forecast.

Don’t let this intimidate you from getting out and catching a sneak peak at the elusive towhee. It is well worth the effort.

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