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Crises of identity behind name of eastern towhee

Sunday, June 16, 2013
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Some say the eastern towhee looks like a tuxedoed gentleman on his way to a party.
Some say the eastern towhee looks like a tuxedoed gentleman on his way to a party.

A male eastern towhee is quite dashing in appearance. Black above, white below and a lovely cinnamon-brown on the flanks give this bird the look of a tuxedoed gentleman on his way to some high-society shindig. The female has the same basic pattern in her feathers, but the black of the male is replaced with a muted caramel-brown.

The most beautiful physical features of these birds, however, are their bright red eyes. Particularly against the black feathers of the males, the red eyes give the birds an appearance of someone who is at the end of their rope, someone with the wide-eyed look of a mad scientist who has just survived an unexpected explosion.

In fact, the eyes of eastern towhees made such an impression on taxonomists that they found their way into the bird’s scientific name — Pipilo erythrophthalmus. “Pipilo” is Latin for “to chirp.” “Erythro” is the Greek word for “red,” and “phthalm” is the Greek word for “the eye.” Put them all together and we learn that the eastern towhee is also known as the “red-eyed chirper.” Simple, right?

Well, in the world of ornithology, things never seem to stay simple for long. The common and scientific names of the birds of North America are governed by an organization called the American Ornithologists Union (AOU for short). The members of this organization are divided into two groups of people that my birding colleague Mike calls “the lumpers and the splitters.” The lumpers are obsessed with gathering up collections of different species and lumping them into one. Splitters are engrossed with the notion that several different species have been inaccurately lumped into one. The two groups are constantly working against one another.

The evidence to support lumping and splitting is provided by scientists known as taxonomists. Skeletons are examined, feathers are counted, physical similarities were compared and today, even the genetic code of different birds can be scrutinized. All of this is done to determine who is related to whom. It turns out that in the world of towhees, there were 18 different types of towhees that were eventually lumped into one species called the “rufous-sided” towhee. Look at a photo of a male and you’ll immediately understand this name.

The problem is that there were so many variations of this bird that the name “rufous-sided” didn’t really seem to apply any more. So a new common name (eastern towhee) had to be established to gather all of these birds together. What’s odd about this is that there is one subspecies of the eastern towhee, Pipilo erythrophthalmus alleni, which has white eyes. So now the scientific name doesn’t make quite as much sense.

In simple terms, towhees are basically large sparrows, and as such, they spend a great deal of time on the ground. They even have that unusual trait of building their nest on the ground in a shallow depression excavated by the female. When the nest is complete, its rim is flush with the ground, making a sitting female quite difficult to find.

In most cases, you actually can’t find a towhee without first hearing the bird’s distinctive “drink-your-tea” song. From there you need to track down the sound, skulk through the underbrush and then sit and wait to catch a glimpse of your quarry. After all of that, you may actually want to drink your tea — as long as it is iced tea!

Bill Danielson is a professional nature photographer and author living in Altamont. Contact him at www.speakingofnature.com.

 
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