Redeye

Posted by Ellen

This rufous-sided towhee–aka Eastern towhee–is bathing in a creek in Randolph County, North Carolina. Red eyes are natural with towhees.

In case you were thinking that these Eastern towhees are really living the life, you should be aware that they commonly suffer severe bullying by mean girls of the somewhat larger Brownheaded Cowbird species. Cowbirds lay eggs almost constantly, like chickens, up to 40 a year, far more than they could ever raise themselves in nests of their own. So they lay their eggs in other birds' nests; they'll take advantage of any convenient nest regardless of the type of bird that built it, but towhees, who nest on the ground, are among their favorite surrogate brooders and baby-raisers.

In some parts of the country, more than 50% of towhee nests contain cowbird eggs in addition to towhee eggs. Some species of birds can tell the difference and will actually push the cowbird eggs right out of the nest, but towhees aren't that smart. Cowbirds, on the other hand, are very smart; to give their own eggs a better chance of survival, and to prevent discovery of what they've deposited in the nest by nest-owners who might know how to count, cowbirds often push some of the towhee eggs out of the nest when they lay their own.

Even worse, the cowbird babies grow faster and bigger than the towhee babies and soon muscle the towhees aside to claim all the food. They sometimes even knock the baby towhees right out of their own nest.

And even worse than that, because towhee nests are on the ground, under bushes, baby towhees may also be victimized by . . . our own sweet little Dobby the Miniature Dog. I believe that Dobby–who is terrified of cats and won't bark at the mailman until he's safely upstairs and under the covers–got himself a towhee last summer while I had him on a leash, waiting for a light to change at a busy intersection right in Center City, Philadelphia. Dobby suddenly dived into a brushy patch, and it was bye-bye, birdie.

Personally, I can't tell one species of cute, innocent, harmless baby bird from another. Maybe it wasn't a towhee, just some other kind of ground-nesting bird living under the bushes of Philadelphia. But thanks to the google, I found a website called ebird, on which I could locate 6 different lists of birds sighted by 3 different bird-watchers within a quarter-mile or so of where Dobby did the deed. Every single list included towhees.

I want to believe, however, that the baby that Dobby dispatched was not a towhee but . . . maybe a cowbird?