Hi, Nice Towhee Meet You

How to Identify a Towhee

Towhees: these robin-sized sparrows are no drab LBJs

The rufous towhees sport a baggy three-piece-suit: a loose jacket on their back; an orange vest on their sides; and a plain white shirt covering their breast. A deep black head and beak surround bright amber eyes.

Yet towhee attire varies slightly by sex and species. Males don dark black while females appear dirty brown- or gray-black. White frill is sparse on the eastern towhee, but plentiful on the western spotted towhee.

An acrobatic spotted towhee at William L. Finley Wildlife Refuge near Corvallis, Oregon.

Although distinctively dressed, towhees are more often heard than seen. Once called “chewinks” (for the sound of one of their calls) spotted towhees—more vocal than their eastern counterparts—have a few quirky calls that catch the ear of passers-by. Listen especially for soft trills during spring and summer and the sound of a towhee’s favorite activity: scratching through mats of leaves!

Come Autumn, Some Plants Provide Towhee Treats

First a catlike “mewww”questions from the thickets, “is anyone listening to me?” Then a constant scratching. A towhee! 

You can find this unusually large and colorful sparrow across the continental United States—year-round in the southern U.S. and migrating to northern states in the spring.

Leaf lovers, towhees find places without an overabundance of fallen leaves inhospitable. The towhee will acquiesce with the edges of a park or an infrequently manicured yard. But to the towhee, the scrubbier, brushier, or leafier, the better. 

A spotted towhee singing at dusk in a forest in northern California.

Near water or in temperate climates, towhees are common. They live where deciduous plants thrive, plants that give shelter and food both to towhees and insects that seek refuge in the rich layer of decomposing leaves.

If you’re lucky enough to spot a towhee in an arid climate, you’re either walking along a perennial stream or standing in a watered backyard adorned with broadleaf shrubs. Most of the desert does not supply the towhees with enough dead leaves to loudly rummage through.

For example, in the arid intermountain region or the southwest, where willow and cottonwood buffer softly flowing waters and drop plenty of leaves, these goofy sparrows play to their utmost pleasure. And in the Pacific northwest, spotted towhees are common throughout the rainforest, at home rummaging in the moist and dense underbrush.

spotted towhee
Spotted towhee in my parents’ yard in Washington.

Yard Towhees

To attract this oversized rufous-sided sparrow to your yard, try planting native shrubs that drop their leaves every fall and provide dense tangles low to the ground for sparrow shelter. It’s also good practice to offer a birdbath and keep cats, songbirds’ top predator, inside. 

The key for towhees: don’t rake up all of those dead leaves. If you leave the leaf litter alone, the bugs and birds will thank you.

P.S. I didn’t forget about these critters, but they’re a different animal.

What if normal is the problem? And other coronavirus questions

The pandemic diaries

Eleven months ago, I flew home to Sea-Tac as coronavirus dug its claws into the flesh of the world. Shelves emptied, businesses closed, panic began to set in. In March 2020, I wrote in my notebook a snippet of conversation I overheard in the grocery store:

“Are we going to die?” A young woman asked.

After a long pause, from behind his mask a man reassured her with two words: “not today.”

In my notebook, I added:

Apocalyptic thoughts rush forward when uncertainty is the only certainty.

Nobody knew how bad it would get. Sitting at the gate for the flight back to Reno, I listened to my pilot talking to a flight attendant:

The media is freaking out about the virus,” the pilot said.

For twenty minutes, he described overreaction that was hurting the industry. On the flight back to Reno, I crouched over the tray table to write a few more anxious pages.

Suddenly, life is no longer normal. How did we get into this mess?

I didn’t share my thoughts back in March. The pandemic felt too fluid, evolving, unknown. My reaction felt too, well, reactionary, to be accurate. Maybe I was overreacting. I needed patience, perspective.

We’re nearly a year in. But looking back at that notebook, I’m shocked by how little has changed:

US leads the world in coronavirus cases by far. We haven’t even seen the worst of it. The virus is underscoring so many pre-existing problems in the country and stressing every aspect of our constitution.

Today, over 100 million people have contracted the virus. Over 2 million have died. The United States still leads the world in both categories.

This irrefutable proof could—should—spread the realization that we can’t ignore our connection to each other, everyone, and everything.

bright orange beach at sunset
Distant strangers on a beach in Washington in December 2020.
Continue reading “What if normal is the problem? And other coronavirus questions”

A 2020 success

2021 Conservation Calendars

This year, conservation calendars traveled to 11 states on the path to raising over $200 for Washington Environmental Council. I donated to WEC because most of my calendars went to my home state, helping fund important work on salmon recovery, Puget Sound orcas, clean energy, environmental justice, and more.

Thank you everyone.

I also partnered with my friends at Sierra Institute for Community and Environment. I worked for the Sierra Institute when I took most of the photos in the calendar. SI ordered calendars to give to special donors as end of year thank you gifts.

I hope you enjoy your calendar!

-Austin

This photo is in the Hall of Mosses in the Hoh Rainforest of Olympic National Park, ancestral land of the Chalát (Hoh) Nation. In the photo you can see my father, standing near center for scale. It was taken in a different eon, 2013, when I apparently didn’t think about such things as blowing highlights.