Double Tea Time for Towhees

Eastern Towhee breeding habitat is forest edge with brushy patches and usually including areas covered by leaf litter. Nests are often on the ground under brush. Photo in Oshtemo Township MI 7 July 2011 by Richard Brewer.

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.

This entry was posted in Birds, Conservation, Michigan (including Kalamazoo). Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

3 Comments

  1. Posted July 8, 2011 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

    When we were at the botanical garden in Mohomet, Lucy thought she heard a warbler. She studied the tree and then said, “Oh! Look! It’s an Indigo Bunting!” It was standing in the sun out at the end of a branch where it shone against the leaves and sky. I don’t think I’ve seen one since I left Michigan.

    I was never able to keep bird calls straight and I still tease Lucy every year by asking which bird it is that says, “Drink Your Teabody, Teabody, Teabody”. No-one seems to think that’s as funny as I do.

  2. Posted July 9, 2011 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

    @ Steven Brewer

    I heard White-throated Sparrows sing in their migration through Illinois in my youth, but it wasn’t until I knew more about New England accents that I realized that the birds really sing “Old Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody” only if you pronounce “Peabody” as “Pea’b’dy.”

  3. Mark H.
    Posted July 11, 2011 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    … And I’ll bet that nearby your home, there’s an Eastern Wood Pewee spending its day whistling for you (to no end) and trying to gain your attention!