My friend Mitch has been keeping towels over the side mirrors on his truck for a couple of weeks now. There’s a bird in his yard that, if it can see its reflection, will stand on the mirror’s base and peck at itself relentlessly, jamming its little beak into the mirror again and again, a terrible thing to watch. Another friend was telling me about a crow that did this for weeks when a new reflective glass building went up in Berkeley. “It seemed,” he says of the bird, which attacked itself without mercy till there were feathers sticking to its bloody beak, “like some horrible metaphor about my state of mind at the time.”
Perhaps you have seen something similar. Crows, robins, bluebirds and mockingbirds all will do this, but the most notorious of these self-flagellants, and the one you most likely have seen doing it, is the California towhee (Pipilo crissalis). And as you might have guessed, he wasn’t in a self-destructive frenzy; he thought there was another bird in the mirror staring back at him and he wasn’t going to let him get away with it. Ever. Like Robert the Bruce in defense of Scotland, or perhaps Homer Simpson in defense of his family, the California Towhee will not back down.
Formerly called the brown towhee, this bird is a very large sparrow, about nine inches long. It has a long tail and short wings and spends a lot of time scratching around for insects on the ground under chaparral, or the brushy shrubs in your yard, where it blends in very nicely. Except for a rusty patch under its tail and some streaks at its throat, it is a very drab brown. Sometimes it almost has a crest, but really it’s more like a flat-top crew cut. Its call is a metallic “chip,” sometimes repeated monotonously every few seconds, and its song is pretty much the same, accelerated into a trill. It is not graceful in flight. Towhee pairs mate for life, building classic-looking nests and faithfully producing a couple of clutches every spring. Except for that aggressive streak, the male towhee is just an average guy, yet it’s hard not to grow fond of these ground birds once you start to notice them. As William Leon Dawson wrote in The Birds of California (1923), “Towhees are just birds—the way most of us are just folks.”
Saturday, May 14, is International Migratory Bird Day, and there will be a ranger-led bird walk up Mount Wanda starting at 8:30 a.m. Meet in the park-and-ride lot at the corner of Alhambra Avenue and Franklin Canyon Road. For more information, call the John Muir National Historic Site at 925-228-8860. Also, the Mount Diablo Audubon Society will sponsor two bird walks at Fernandez Ranch in May: see www.diabloaudubon.com for more information.