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  • Writer's pictureMahalia LoMele

California Towhee

Updated: Nov 14, 2020

We call them “pie birds.” Birds so common that surely they wouldn’t be missed if four-and-twenty of them got baked in a pie.

California Towhee
Now that's a drab bird

Snarky couple, we! So much we didn’t know. That nursery rhyme recounts an authentic Age of Enlightenment recipe for fancy folks. The birds couldn't have been baked: as the rhyme says, “when the pie was opened, the birds began to sing.” The whole point was to excite and amuse royal diners by releasing a flock of freaked out songbirds into their faces (I should also point out that back then such creatures were in fact trapped and eaten).

But the underwhelming choice for this table-side stunt would be California Towhees. They are frankly tiresome — dull color, sullen personality. Worse, their song is a single-pitched squeak (although it’s also true that it accelerates impressively into a clarion morning-walk-inspiring tattoo). But a songbird? Nope.

How about an obsessive bully? Yep.

Some time ago, in the vicinity of Fivespot, a disturbing pattern of three, four, six, ten thwacks would emerge from the calm. What the heck? Worst-case scenarios bubble up: dusky-footed wood rats under the house, doing their weird thumping dance and eating the wiring (my first-choice worry), or woodpeckers creating a new granary for themselves out of the siding.

We strain to detect the culprit. Then we notice a Towhee, looking exhausted yet determined, on the Fivespot front railing. No kidding, it flung itself towards the house, right into the kitchen window. Thwack! Thwack! … Thwack! ……….. Thwack! …. Thwack!

Tricked by the reflective glass into believing that it had a rival, that Towhee was taking care of business. Thwack! …….. Thwack!………….. Thwack! How funny. We chased it off, sure of solving the mystery and the problem.

So much we didn’t know.

illustration of California Towhee

He came back, the next day, the day after that, and on and on. We put paper cutouts in the window to dim the mirror effect. Didn’t help. Later it moved to the other side of the porch, to a breakfront we had hauled west from New York, which had built-in mirrors along the shelves. Thwack! … Thwack! …….. It didn’t take long before that old hand-me-down piece of furniture was covered in Towhee guano. There was no stopping it.

A year passed. The very same bird continued its assault on all things reflective. It had a new target: side mirrors on cars. Now we had to apologize to cabin guests for all the thwacking! they heard inside the house, and suggest they disguise their rental car mirrors to avoid bird damage. Ay!

Year three: surely that is not the same bird! No, in fact, not. Now it’s an army of Towhees attacking windows, outdoor mirrors both automotive and decorative, at Fivespot and down the hill where we park the Toyota. Bird guano is the new reality on car doors and front seats when the windows are left rolled down.

So a crazy bird goes after a phantom rival, and never mind the brain damage, manages to breed? The multiple birds are his progeny? More likely to my mind, the other male Towhees have finally recognized this grave new threat. It’s a thing now, Towhees banging themselves into their own reflections. No self-respecting bird neglects a display opportunity!

I’ve often wondered why Puffnip and Frederick never catch California Towhees. Now I know: they are not for eating in pies, not for singing when exiting a pie, not for eating on the wing. Why? Because towhees are tough.

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