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Blane Klemek column: Towhees are delightful birds with delightful song

Last month, I spent a few hours each evening for seven days nestled within the limbs of an old bur oak tree in a northwestern Minnesota woodland. Surrounded by other oak trees, aspen, and hazel, my vision was restricted to a very small area because of the dense and green foliage. Nonetheless, the wildlife I observed inside that small wooded window was worth every idle second.

I experienced mostly mild weather throughout the week, somewhat cool for early September, but also intermittent rain, winds and calm periods that were so quiet they were, oddly enough, noisy. As well, time was spent exploring the woods for signs of deer activity, taking naps in the camper and enjoying nighttime fires and good conversation.

But there were mosquitoes, too. Thick clouds of the nasty insects tormented every warm-blooded critter, including me, in the entire forest. And though the pests do indeed have merit, providing unlimited food for birds and other creatures, if not for DEET and a head net there would have been no relaxing for yours truly.

A common avian resident observed during my brief stay in their backyard was one of my favorite birds, the eastern towhee. I first became aware of the towhees' presence by hearing them. The bird is frequently heard calling softly its namesake -- towhee -- through the thick understory of hazel, in addition to softly vocalizing another common phrase, "drink-your-teeeeeee," a most delightful birdcall to listen to.

Towhees are actually overgrown colorful sparrows, belonging to that large family of sparrows and their allies, Emberizidae. About 7 to 8 inches in length with a long tail, the male of the species sports beautiful rusty orange-colored flanks, a white belly, black upper parts and black wings accented with white-tipped primaries.

A bird of forested edges and dense undergrowth typical of young to mid-age deciduous forests, observing towhees in action as they search for food in thickets and on the ground is not easy to do. The birds are somewhat shy and quite active as well.

Hearing them is more likely. Not only are their songs and calls distinctive, towhees are noisy foragers. They have the interesting habit -- much like domestic chickens -- of scratching the earth as they search for food.

However, unlike chickens, which usually scratch with one foot at a time, towhees jump forward and quickly scratch backward with both feet at the same time to uncover seeds, berries and invertebrates from beneath forest leaves and debris.

If a group of towhees are feeding together, which is often the case, the unknowing wildlife enthusiast might imagine a much larger animal or animals. The birds are surprisingly noisy as they forage. I've wondered while watching these fascinating birds if their activities attract predators. It's possible that they're well aware of the stir they cause, because they rarely seem to expose themselves from the protection of thick shrubbery.

Some older bird field guides have the eastern towhee named the rufous-sided towhee. So too was the name of the western race of towhee as the two races were considered to be the same species. But today they are classified as two separate species: the eastern towhee and the spotted towhee. The rufous-sided towhee, at least for now, doesn't exist anymore.

Most ornithologists agree the eastern towhee is a species in decline. Possible reasons for this are numerous, which include, chiefly, loss of critical habitat. Towhees thrive in open canopied, shrub-dominated habitats. For example, the understory of the aspen woodlands of Kittson County, where I observe more towhees than anywhere else, are abundant with thick shrub-growth under an overstory that includes gaps and forest openings, along with wetlands ringed with willows and alder.

Other factors that might be contributing to towhee population declines include increased nest parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds and predation of eggs and nestlings by furbearers such as skunks, foxes, coyotes, feral cats and other small mammals. However, the decline of preferred habitat due to suburban development, agricultural practices and forest succession are undoubtedly the most troublesome for conservationist hoping to reverse the towhee's present population trend.

Towhees nest either on the ground within woody vegetation or just above the ground in dense shrub thickets. The nest is built by the female and is constructed of materials such as grass and other plant materials like bits of bark, rootlets and old leaves. Anywhere from two to six creamy white or grayish eggs are laid and incubated by the female towhee. The eggs hatch in about two weeks.

The birds' diet is varied, but includes ample insects, fruits, seeds, nuts, snails, slugs and even small amphibians such as immature wood frogs that are plentiful in late summer when conditions are right. As towhees forage, they often call to one another a common phrase -- "chewink." And usually, just as the last rays of daylight give way to moonbeams, the pleasant songs of individual towhees can be heard throughout the understory as the birds prepare to roost for the night.

By now, the eastern towhee has migrated from northern Minnesota. Their winters are spent mostly in the eastern half of the United States, in Nebraska and the southern New England states. But come spring, most eastern towhees make their journey back north to Minnesota, other northern-tier states and parts of Canada.

Hopefully, as conservationists continue to recognize the importance of early-successional forest habitat management for these birds and others, the eastern towhee and their pleasing "drink-your-tee" songs will always be present for our eyes and ears as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at