Sparrows in Drag: A Tribute to the Towhees

I never imagined I would be writing an article extolling the colourful beauty of a member of the sparrow family, yet here we are. Towhees are gorgeous. Here are five reasons to love this little bird.

That little red vest

The spotted towhee’s name is a bit disappointing, if you ask me. I mean, those basic white spots are among its least interesting features. Back in the day, when it was lumped with its eastern cousin, they were known as the rufous-sided towhee; before that, long ago, it was the red-eyed towhee. All these names pay tribute to its stand-out colours. I mean, think about it: what other sparrow is that beautiful? What other sparrow has that combo of colours? Why are all other sparrows just so boring?

The towhee is a knockout. I always know what my friends mean when they ask about “a bird with a reddish breast but it’s totally not a robin.” That, my friend, is a towhee. Praise its beauty.

spotted towhee against green background
So pretty I can’t even.

That eye

One look at the red eye of the spotted towhee (and its cousin the eastern towhee) and you will never forget it. It looks right through you; it would be daemonic if it weren’t on such a sweet little creature.

Why does a humble little ground-dwelling bird need such a shockingly-coloured eye? Nobody really knows, but it probably has something to do with communication. It likely helps them identify other adults (juveniles have brown eyes) and it may have something to do with attraction—that red eye really pops, as the decorators say.

spotted towhee close up
Males have a darker hood.

They’re transformers.

Towhees have two strange powers, both involving transformation. Their beaks change length over the year, and so do their guts.

We think of the sparrows as seed and plant eaters, but that’s really not the whole picture. In spring and summer, when they’re raising babies, they need a whole lot of protein. Towhees eat a lot of bugs. Then, in the off season, they switch back to seeds—eating a lot of grit and dirt in the process. That endless pecking at ground level wears down the beak, which grows back for spring and stays long and sharp for all that bug-eating. Handy, no?

The gut length is related. It doesn’t change length from wear and tear; it changes length to adapt to that diet switch. Eating a lot of vegetable matter requires a longer digestion time; animals that eat a lot of plants (and plant fibre) have long guts. In towhees (and some other birds), the intestines accommodate in seed-eating season by getting longer. How cool is that?

Spotted towhee in profile
Towhee in the snow. Photo: Tom Ediger

That little scratch-hop

Towhees spend a lot of time poking around among the leaves and other natural debris on the ground. Kind of like a chicken, really. Except you know how a chicken scratches with one foot, while balancing on the other? Towhees (and other sparrow) have a different method. They hop forward, dig their little claws in, and hop backwards with both feet. It’s just so cute. Here, have a look. (Thanks for the video, Jean Iron.)

Drink your tea. Or not.

Towhees are famous for their cheerful (and surprisingly loud) song. They’re supposed to say “Drink your tea!” which is kind of what it sounds like, except it’s more “Drink! Your! Teeeeee!” Here, have a listen:

Unless you live where I live. Our spotted towhees on the west coast can’t be bothered telling people what to do with their hot beverages. They just go, “Teeeeeeeeeee” and let you figure it out.

spotted towhee close up in afternoon light
To think this is a sparrow.

Are you towhee-friendly?

Towhees hang out in areas with open spaces surrounded by brambles and shrubs. That describes a whole lot of suburban properties, so if that’s your place, you might watch out for them. They will visit seed feeders readily, particularly when the weather gets bad.

But they are really at their most beautiful when foraging among the leaf litter. Consider adding a layer of leaf mulch around your garden, or just leave the leaves that fall in autumn to decompose naturally. Your soil will thank you—and so will the towhees.

Let me brighten your Friday.

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