Having had so long a relationship with our beloved California towhee, Tow-Tow, who we lost last spring of 2018, I feel a need to pay her homage, so here it is.
We have had California towhees since we moved here in 2004. They are a very common bird in our area. They are basically a big, fat, brown ground sparrows. They will scratch in the leaf duff, making a lot of noise, very much like a chicken. I had started to feed the towhees in 2013 and was enjoying their company. I don’t remember the exact time that I started calling Tow-Tow, Tow-Tow but I do recall why. I was always calling out ” Tow-Tow, Tow-Tow” to her when I wanted to feed her. It was plain and simple. Calling Tow-Tow a “her” came about because over the years we noticed that she would get very plump in the spring, and then she would show up all svelte after she laid her eggs, so I presumed it was a female.
It got to the point that when she would come around the corner of the house and I would call to her, she would run the thirty feet over to me to be fed. She was the first bird that I had the opportunity to establish a true relationship with. We were well aware of each other.
With the towhees being so close to me, I often was shown little insights into behaviors of all sorts. In some years there would be a hatch of green caterpillars that, while they were mostly up in the trees, also fell to the ground in good numbers. Two different caterpillars could be noticed. One was a green larva that was slightly smaller than the mealworms I use, the other was considerably larger and was a sphinx moth caterpillar.
Most birds mate and rear young in the spring because of one fact: more food. There are a whole lot of larval insects around to keep young fledgelings healthy. The larva can also be an indicator of when a bird is feeding hatchlings because the birds will be stacking the worms in their beaks to take back to their nests rather than just eating them immediately. This stacking of worms in their beaks helped me to find Tow-Tow’s nest in 2014. After I would fill up Tow-Tow’s beak with worms, she would fly off to the south yard. I decided to try and follow her. When I followed her around the corner to the south yard, I lost sight of her. I waited there patiently until she returned to me for more worms, and I filled up her beak again. Off she flew to her nest, ten feet away from where I was standing! I could see her nest! Well, that worked pretty well.
Tow-Tow’s nesting effort of 2014 ended in failure (see essay “Nest Watching Wonders”). Towhees make their nests very low to the ground, usually within a couple of feet of it. This particular nest was also a little bit open to view and therefore a prime candidate for predation. Birds are pretty much forced to mate in spring because of chemical changes in their bodies, so Tow-Tow would attempt to have more broods over the years and we would see lots of them.
When one has a relationship with a wild bird, or any animal, over the course of a few years it can open up insights into that animal’s behavior. One distinct behavior of the towhees was shown to us one spring while they were doing a bonding ritual that they do. We had seen it before, however we were inside at the time and did not hear the calls that they apparently make. This time we were at the table in the north yard and the towhees were eight feet away from us. One towhee, I would presume the male, would pick up a small twig and bring it as an offering to its mate. What we got to hear this time was the low, soft chip notes that they were making while they did this bonding ritual. It was fascinating!
Towhees are stoical birds. Nothing much seems to bother them, that is, other than another towhee in their territory, then they will fight. Not too much though, usually it is just a quick squabble. Besides showing up for the food I offer, towhees and all the other birds also show up for the water here in my yard. Not only to drink but to bathe. Where I live the habitat provides most of the bird’s needs. Where I live is also in Southern California, which means: not much water. To combat this I have eight bird baths. On the south side of the house I have three birdbaths, one on the ground and two off it. On the north side I have five, two on the ground and three off. What’s that saying, “Build it and they will come.” It works!
Mostly though, the birds come to eat. I have the best and easiest to find food around these parts. They also bring their fledgelings in from time to time. Sometimes they would be quite close to us. It was always enjoyable to see the youngsters. After all, we did feel like grandparents pretty much.
Some years Tow-Tow would have a second brood, some years not. I don’t really know why. The food resources that I would make available to them were kept constant. I feed them every day, however I only feed the birds when I am able to be out there with them. That is so I can keep the undesirables out, like the ground squirrels. Animals can get very pushy over food. The bluebirds, Bonnie and Clyde, would fly right in front of our faces when flying in to let us know that they are here. Patience, the Hermit thrush, would fly to our faces and back from its perch on the chair next to us when we were not paying attention to it. And all the birds we hand feed would come on top of the table and check us out very closely whenever they would come through.
When Tow-Tow would fly up onto the table, she is a ground bird remember, you would hear a loud thump. One always knew when it was Tow-Tow. The last month before Tow-Tow disappeared she added something to her checking us out for food routine. If our hand was on the table she would come right up to it to see if it held any food. First she would look around the area of the little finger and then move to the index finger and thumb. She would then inspect inside the hole that the finger and thumb make when resting on a table. Having found no worms she would then peck our index finger! That’s right, peck our finger! She did it twice to me and twice to my wife. Talk about a brazen bird! But hey, we did, after all, have a long standing relationship going on. She should be allowed that discretion. Not only was it allowed, we loved it! Tow-Tow was always a calm and peaceful presence in our yard and we enjoyed her immensely, to say the least. I am already grooming a replacement for Tow-Tow. This California towhee is already coming up onto the table to eat, so it is only a matter of time before she is taking food from my hand. I even have a name for it already, Tow-Tow II. In memoriam to Tow-Tow.
Your’s in Nature,