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Let's Go Outside | Commentary by Evelyne Vandersande
| Thursday, Jul 10, 2014

evelynevandersande_mugMost of us are actually wonderful bird watchers. We have vast knowledge and don’t even realize it.

“How is that possible? I have never gone bird watching with a group, and I do not even own a pair of binoculars,” you ask.

I will issue a challenge: You can already recognize many birds without even looking at them.

That might seem far-fetched, but think about it for a minute. You are inside your house, and a few crows are outside doing what crows do so well: being loud. Are they defending a nest, protecting their area, chasing away a hawk? Who knows? Crows are vocal when they are in action, and when they are doing mating calls clacking their beaks they are not very subtle, either. You did not need to check through the window, right? You knew crows were outside.

Scrub jays are the same. Their call is more piercing than the crow’s, and while not as loud, you know if two scrub jays are fighting for that piece of bread you threw outside. Western scrub jay is the proper name. You might call them blue jays, but we are talking about the same bird.

Owls in Newhall.

Fledgling owls in Newhall.

Those are birds you can see during the day. What about a bird you have probably never seen, yet you know perfectly well what it is? This bird comes out at night, perches high in a tree and stays quiet while looking for prey – so even with a strong flashlight, your chance of finding it is almost nil. Even if it flies, you won’t hear a sound because it has a lot of down and soft plumage that absorbs the sound. It hunts at night, so it is important for this bird to catch its prey by surprise. Consequently, soundless flight is necessary to be successful.

I was long aware there was one in my neighborhood, but I had never seen it. One night, my daughter imitated his calls – “Hoo, hoo” – and the great horned owl flew above our heads to check what other owl was invading its territory. We did not hear a sound and only noticed the bird when it was flying directly over our heads because a lamp reflected on its pale underside plumage. Hoo-hoo? You have heard that sound, so you can recognize a great horned owl by its call, even if you have not seen one high up in the tree.

I am pretty sure you also recognize the soft “coo-coo” from a mourning dove, a pale grey bird that is often seen on the ground, and often in pairs.

If you are vin tune with the birds in your garden, you can tell when you have a new visitor. In my case, I always know when the spotted towhee is back. Towhees are year-round residents in California, but I do not see them often in the winter. Their call is different from other birds: They have a harsh, rising, growling “zhreee” that really cannot be missed. They also have a little melody with eight notes but that ends up with a busy trill: “che-che-che zheeee.”

Spotted towhee in Newhall. Photo: Leon Worden

Spotted towhee in Newhall. They scurry around in brush, under bushes, looking for food. Photo: Leon Worden

This call really demands your attention. I did a bit of research, and what I found is even more interesting: The spotted towhee will sing a slightly different song and its plumage will have some variation in different parts of the country. Could it be that birds have an accent according to where they come from? I cannot draw any conclusion on that, so I will just say, “Geographic variation in voice and plumage is complex and poorly understood.” You must admit it is interesting and puzzling.

Look at the pictures to be able to identify the spotted towhee. The male has some black marking, and the female has brown marking; otherwise they have the same white wing bars and spots, and they both have red eyes. They are very beautiful and striking birds, but they are rather secretive. They can be seen under bushes, in areas with branches low to the ground, and they do not come easily into the open in your backyard except to have fun in your bird bath.

Spotted towhee

Spotted towhee

They forage for insects with a double-footed, scratching, backward hop. During the breeding season, they look for insects and arthropods because they need more protein. During the rest of the year they eat seeds, berries and even acorns.

They are monogamous birds (they have one partner), and they lay three to six eggs twice a year. The nest is often on the ground under a bushy tree like a scrub oak. The female stays on the nest for 13 days, and both parents feed the young for 10 to 12 days. Because the nest is so low to the ground, the young birds are often prey for ground squirrels, scrub jays and snakes.

If you want to attract a spotted towhee to your backyard, make sure you have dense brush in piles that they can scratch up to find insects, and leave layers of leaves under your bushes.

The spotted towhee is one of our most beautiful California birds with its bright plumage and strong markings. Its song is not always melodious, but once you have heard it, it will be second nature for you to remember it, just as you did with the owl.

See? You really are a natural bird watcher.

 
Evelyne Vandersande has been a docent at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center for 28 years. She lives in Newhall.

 

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