Photo by Gregory Vinyard
Written by Abby West
Hiking around with my family at Enchanted Rock last January, we were all startled by a sudden flurry of leaf litter that shot out at us from beneath some bushes several feet away. Kneeling down, I took a peek under the brush, expecting to see a fidgety squirrel. Instead, I saw one beady, bright red eye glaring back at me.
A Spotted Towhee, I later learned. In the sparrow family, but larger than most sparrows and dawning jet black wings with highly contrasted white spots, auburn flanks and a white belly. And of course, bright red eyes. Eye colors in birds vary widely among species- and scientists are still discovering why that is. Other birds with red eyes have been studied, and even if the bird’s irises are the exact same color red, they can have completely different causes. For example, the red of a cowbird’s eyes comes from unusually large blood vessels, whereas vireos depend on two different types of pigment compounds. As far as I can tell, the cause of the Towhees iris coloration hasn’t yet been studied.
Here in Texas, Spotted Towhees breed in the Trans-Pecos regions in the Chisos, Guadalupe and Davis mountain ranges and can be found in Central Texas during the winter months, usually leaving again around late Spring. During breeding season, they build their nests either directly on the ground, or in brush less than 5 feet off the ground. For a creature with wings, Towhees spend an awful lot of time on the ground; startled females have been seen running away instead of flying. To build a nest, they’ll dig a small depression in the ground, and the female will spend 5 days lining it with pine needles, leaves, and shreds of bark.
In fact, digging is sort of what they’re known for. Well, not digging exactly– it’s more like something halfway between digging a hole and dancing a jig, and it has its very own terminology: the double-scratch. In search of food crawling around in the leaf litter, Towhees jump straight up, reaching their feet forward when they do, quickly rake behind them all the duff and then do this once more before they pause to search what they’ve uncovered for some squirming treat. I could think of many more creative names for this peculiar hunting strategy, like the rake bounce.. but I think the towhee two-step takes home the gold (although I can’t claim to have come up with that- I saw it floating around on the internet once). In any case, this process results in a rambunctious scattering of leaves on the ground, and that is often the giveaway that this otherwise secretive bird is nearby.
What It’s Like to Be a Bird by David Allen Sibley