A frequently overlooked bird that returns to the Barrington area each spring, sometimes as early as late March, is the eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus). I learned its name as the rufous-sided towhee but that changed when ornithologists split the species into the eastern and its western counterpart, the spotted towhee.
Because of its often secretive ways, the towhee is more readily recognized by its song: Drink your teeeeea! with the final note drawn out in tremulo. It’s a merry song that brightens a walk in shrublands, or areas with dense understory, which are the towhee’s habitat of preference. When the male announces territory or advertises for a mate with its jaunty notes, it often perches conspicuously on the branch of a shrub or small tree. It is then that the towhee is most easy to see. But in my experience, it frequently is hidden deep in low foliage or on the ground where it scratches the leaf litter in search of seeds and invertebrates, and utters its call, a brief and sharp Chewínk!
The towhee is worth searching for. When I first learned to recognize the species, I thought of it as a robin in fancy dress. That seems a poor description to me now, as the male towhee is remarkably handsome – even flashy – with its black cowl and back feathers, chestnut vest, and white under-plumage and tail edges. If you get a close enough look, you’ll see that the towhee has bright red eyes. The female is similar but with more muted tones; her cowl and back are brown rather than black.
Locally, the towhee nests in wilder shrubby areas. Unlike the robin it is not a yard bird. Parts of Cook County’s Spring Creek Forest Preserve and Lake County’s Cuba Marsh that have thick stands of brush are good places to look and listen for towhees.
In some regions, towhees have suffered considerable decline in numbers because of loss of habitat and/or high predation by raccoons and other predators. Where healthy shrublands exist, the birds are relatively common, often nesting in association with gray catbirds, field sparrows, and yellow warblers. For a good many years I have conducted breeding bird surveys in a section of Spring Creek Forest Preserve south of Algonquin Road and, happily, have found the towhee population there robust and stable.
So keep your ears open for those tell-tale notes – Drink your teeeeea! or a shortened version thereof – and look hard for the bird that sings them. You are almost sure to feel an uplift of heart.
About the Author
Wendy Paulson has lived in Barrington Hills since 1975, and has led bird walks in the area for many years. She re-established the Nature Lady program in the Barrington 220 school district and St. Anne’s in the late 70s, under the auspices of The Garden Club and Little Garden Club of Barrington. Wendy developed the education program for Citizens for Conservation, initiated and edited its newsletter, and has been an active volunteer with CFC for over 30 years.
During interludes in New York City and Washington, DC, Wendy taught classes about birds in the public schools and is helping to develop a similar program in Chicago public schools with Openlands. She is chairman of The Bobolink Foundation, serves on the board or advisory committee of multiple conservation and bird-related organizations, both domestic and international, and is former chairman of IL and NY chapters of The Nature Conservancy.
Wendy and her husband Hank have two grown children and are avid hikers, cyclists, and kayakers.
If you would like to learn more about the Birds of Barrington, Citizens for Conservation just announced Wendy Paulson’s schedule of eleven upcoming Spring Bird Walks & Hikes, from April through June. (CLICK HERE for the full schedule of Wendy’s upcoming hikes.) These walks will take place at locations throughout the Barrington area.