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Flight Lines: Towhee tests Cass County winter with brief visit

A typical view of an eastern towhee buried in cover. Its orange flanks are evident; the black head and back verifies its sex as a male. Keith Corliss/The Pioneer

Imagine you are a bird. You've spent the spring and summer somewhere up north, raising young while safely avoiding predators and other dangers, but generally enjoying the warmth and nutritional bounty served up by the long, lazy days of sun.

Now it's getting colder, the days much shorter, your family has dispersed, and food is getting harder to come by. There's this nagging notion you can't shake, something deep within your core says to go south, or at least somewhere else. And so you take off.

Days and miles later you cross what appears to be a flat open landscape with little to offer in the way of potential rest sites. At last you come upon an area with some cover, maybe you hear others of your kind calling, and there appears to be a good mix of trees and shrubs along with nearby water. You descend from altitude and check out the conditions. Then, for reasons you can't describe, you decide to stay a while.

How else do we adequately explain the presence of an eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) in a tiny western Cass County town last weekend? After all, this is a species which normally disappears from our area by mid-October.

Every November, though, seems to produce a fair number of these weird displacements - birds which, by most respected accounts, shouldn't be here anymore. Just why this occurs we'll never know. The scenario described above is not based on science. It's merely someone trying to come to terms with observed facts. We can speculate, postulate and ruminate. But in the end, nature defiantly does what it does without our approval or satisfactory explanation.

Eastern towhees are curious birds. They are giant sparrows although we don't call them sparrows; they are strikingly marked although we don't see them much; they cover virtually all of eastern North America but we know little about them. This despite the fact the birds were first described in the late 16th century by a settler on the ill-fated Roanoke Island off the North Carolina coast.

Those with older field guides might be confused, "just what is an eastern towhee?" This species actually stemmed from what was once called rufous-sided towhee. In 1995, it was determined the eastern and western populations of this large sparrow deserved separate species statuses. Thus from one, we have two: Eastern towhee and spotted towhee, both of which occur in North Dakota.

The western counterpart - spotted towhee - nests extensively in the badlands. The only reliable location to find nesting eastern towhees in North Dakota is the Pembina gorge. But during migration we see the birds locally. Well, sort of see them.

As a group (there are five species in the U.S.), the towhees are known to be brush-hugging skulkers. The birds spend most of their time scratching the undergrowth for food and generally staying in heavy cover. Cornell University's website describes the situation perfectly when it says, "...many of your sightings end up mere glimpses through tangles of little stems."

Thankfully for bird-watchers, the birds sing quite loudly and quite distinctly. Eastern towhees call with an uprising chwink. But their song is more clear-cut, a few introductory notes followed by a trill suggesting drink-your-teeee, somewhat similar to what we hear from red-winged blackbirds.

If lucky enough to get an unrestricted view of an eastern towhee, you will see a large (over 8"), long-tailed bird with a conical bill typical of sparrows. The sexes are easy to separate; males are completely black-hooded, black-backed, and black-tailed with stark white bellies flanked with wide areas of burnt orange. In females, dark brown replaces the black. Both have red eyes.

Why a male eastern towhee is content to ride out the season (so far) in Cass County when it should be in places like Arkansas for the winter, is a question no one can answer with confidence. Yet this and other seemingly lost birds continue to surprise us every fall. Most chance fate with our harsh winters and don't make it to spring. This towhee is certainly rolling the dice. But maybe, just maybe, this is a pioneer which boldly defies us all. It has already.