My hearing is not as good as it was ten or twenty years ago, mainly for high notes. That’s one reason I was pleased to hear an Eastern Towhee singing today when I walked down to get the newspapers. It took me a moment to identify the song. One problem with losing the high notes is that, though you can still hear many songs, some may be hard to recognize when you’re hearing only the medium and low notes.
There was another reason I had to listen for a couple of repeats to identify this song. The towhee song is traditionally rendered as “Drink your tea,” with the first note high, the second lower, and the third a trill, so it’s something like “Drink your tea-ee-ee-ee-ee.” It’s an easy song to learn, even for those of us who aren’t particularly musical.
This bird, however, was singing “Tea your tea,” or “Tea-ee-ee-ee-ee your tea-ee-ee-ee-ee.”
I thought this version would probably serve the male’s territorial defense needs. My wife, however, was doubtful that it would be as successful in attracting female towhees as the more conventional version.
Aretas Saunders, who probably qualifies as the first serious student of North American bird songs, commented in his little Guide to Bird Songs (Doubleday & Co.,1951 revision of the 1935 original) that unusual songs from Towhees are not uncommon. One variant I’ve heard a handful of times is a two-noted version, just “Drink tea.” Saunders mentions this variant, among others, and notes that when it occurs the introductory note is usually the lower one. In other words, it’s the first note (“Drink“) that’s omitted. If that’s so, then I guess what the bird is actually singing is “Your tea.”
The name “towhee” comes from the bird’s voice, but not from the song. “Towhee” is one way to represent one of the common call notes of the species. To me, it generally sounds a little more like “T’wee.” “Chewink” is another representation of the same call note. In earlier, less standardized times, “Chewink” was used as an alternative name for the species.
Saunders began to notice a deterioration in his ability to hear the high notes of bird songs around 1938 when he was in his mid-fifties. For me, the inability to hear bird voices like that of the Blue-winged Warbler if I’m more than a few feet away is a matter for regret. For someone like Saunders, such losses must be much sadder.