Volume 13, Issue 34 ~ August 25 - 31, 2005
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Earth Journal
by Gary Pendleton

Onomatopoeia in the Blackberry Bush
‘Drink your tea … drink your tea.’

Rufous-sided towhee, what a wonderful, old fashioned sounding name! Never mind that the American Ornithological Union recently decided, for reasons we won’t go into here, to change the name to the more prosaic Eastern towhee.

Male towhees are a striking combination of reddish brown — or rufous — and white. Females are similarly patterned, but where males are black, females are a rufousy brown, making them better able to blend into their surroundings above the ground.

This handsome bird makes its living scratching, with both feet, for insects in the leaf litter. Blackberry thickets make ideal habitat for towhees to feed and seek shelter. Their steady, rhythmic scratching is nearly as reliable an auditory clue to their presence as the birds’ distinctive, ringing song, which birders describe as sounding like drink your tea.

As with many songbirds, the vocalizations of towhees break down into two categories: songs and calls. Songs are used by males to establish territory and to attract a mate. (Though the females of some other species, such as cardinals, are also known to sing.) Calls are used by both sexes for a variety of purposes such as alarm and communication between adults and young.

The name towhee comes from the sounds of the birds’ two-syllable call, with the accent on the second syllable. But what may sound like towhee to you, might sound like chewink to a New Englander, and in some regions chewink is the bird’s colloquial name.

Whatever you call them, these attractive birds are present year ’round on the coastal plain of Maryland.

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