THE TOWHEE; CHEWINK.
(Pipilo erythrophthalmus.)


BY LYNDS JONES.

THE home of my childhood and early youth nestles in one of the gems of woodland which are so characteristic of the rolling prairies of central Iowa. This hundred acre grove covers five main hills, with their valleys and the lesser runs which divide each of the five hills into two, three, or four lesser hills. The hills radiate in a semicircle to the north and west from the height on which the old home stands, rolling away to the creek which bathes their feet. Here are tall, heavy woods, without underbrush, covering the north slopes; lower, more open woods with patches of plum, and wild crab apple trees, with some hazel brush on all lower slopes of the hills; and finally a liberal fringe of low, brushy trees — hawthorn, plum and crab apple trees — and dense hazel brush on the uplands and on lower lands away from the creek. This dense growth also fringes the county road which extends from end to end of the grove, and it was from this roadside that towhee first heralded his arrival from the south, during the bright days of late March or early April. Later, when the frost had left the ground, and his mate was growing anxious to be selecting a nesting-place, he might be seen on the topmost twig of one of the taller small trees in every brushy place on every hillside. I have sometimes wondered if the towhee household did not have some disagreement about the family name, for the male, from his elevated perch loudly calls towhee-e-e-e, while his spouse on the ground below no less vigorously reiterates che-wink. But if danger seems to threaten his lordship quickly descends to join his mate in earnest warning that this small bit of earth belongs by right of discovery to che-wink. How earnestly both birds emphasize their claim by the nervous fluff of the short, stiff wings and the quick spreading of the long tail, as if the large patches of white at its end would startle the intruder away. But the male bird does not always confine himself to the iteration of the name he seems to love so well. Instead of the single first syllable there may be two or even three, no two in the same pitch. It has been a surprise to me that persons unfamiliar with the towhee's song do not realize that the two parts proceed from the same bird. To them the first part seems to resemble some part of the wood thrush's song and the last part — the he-e-e-e — the rattle of downy woodpecker. My ear persistently renders the whole song, towhee-e-e-e, or towhe-hee-e-e-e-e, or O towhe-he-e-e-e-e-e. Others render it chuck burr pilla-will-a will. But towhee is not limited to this variety of vocalization. Besides the abbreviation of his che-wink alarm note to swink, or even wink, and a chuck, chuck, when the nest is threatened, he sometimes sings a rarely beautiful ditty which is totally unlike any of his other performances. I have heard it only shortly after his arrival from the south, before his mate had joined him, and have tried in vain to describe it.

     

The bird moves slowly and sedately about among the fallen leaves in a soliloquy over the happenings of the long journey just ended, with apparently no thought of the absent mate. The manner of its utterance indicates that this is the bird's private song, egotistic if you please, while his treetop rendition is evidently his altruistic performance.

The ordinary song and call and alarm notes are well rendered in the local names bestowed upon the bird: Towhee, chewink, joreet, joree, charee, pink-pink, and wink-wink. His chestnut-colored sides and lowly habits have given him the names of ground robin and swamp robin, and his red iris, red-eyed towhee.

Nesting begins about the first of May in northern Ohio. The nest is almost always placed on the ground, often in a slight depression made by the birds, rarely in a bush up to seven feet from the ground. It is made of material easily accessible in the region of the nest, of dry leaves for a foundation upon which plant stems, dry grass, grape vine bark, or like material is arranged, and the, whole lined with fine rootlets. The material will vary somewhat with locality and situation of the nest, as a matter of course. Rarely the nest may be covered, with the entrance in the side, but it is usually not covered. The nest site is preferably some distance from a road or footpath, often in moderately deep woods where there is little underbrush, but more often in the shrubbery fringing the woods, either on a hill top or side hill or bottom land. Here at Oberlin, Ohio, I have found more nests in the low second growth near swampy places than elsewhere.

The nest complement is from three to five eggs, usually four. The egg seems to be a rather rounded ovate, running to nearly spherical on the one hand to elongate oval on the other. The ground color is white, not seldom tinged with pink or blue, with sprinkling of reddish-brown dots, spots, and blotches. It is a common experience to find eggs of the parasitic cowbird in nests of towhee. Twice I have found nests on which the mother towhee was serenely sitting with four eggs of the cowbird beneath her and none of her own. Two eggs of the cowbird and two or three of the towhee in a nest are common. Sometimes the parasitic eggs so closely resemble those of the parent that it is not easy to distinguish between them, but often the difference is very marked.

The towhee is a fairly common inhabitant of the whole region east of the Rocky Mountains and north to the northern border of the United States, breeding everywhere north of northern Alabama.


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