Secretive Abert’s towhees are described in field guides as residents of thick brush in Sonoran riparian corridors, usually cottonwood and willow woodlands along rivers and streams. Yet Aberts’ hang around my back yard, pecking and scratching on the ground for insects and seeds. They find cover in the creosote and chuparosa we’ve planted, and sip the water trickling from the cement lip of our fountain.
The native waterways that make up the towhee’s traditional range have mostly dried up. Growing demands on ground water have brought Arizona’s desert streams to a nonexistent or strictly ephemeral status. Water collects in these channels after rains, but the amount is insufficient to bring the water table up to the surface level of the stream beds. Suburban yards, particularly those planted with native species that attract insects and produce seeds have proven to be havens for these displaced song birds.
Abert’s towhee is a homebody. He keeps to a small home range and mates for life. In a romantic ritual, the male woos the female by feeding her seeds and the two sing duets together. Throughout the year towhee pairs forage together, calling to each other often, always strengthening the bond. The female weaves a large open cup shaped nest and may decorate the outside with flowers. She lays 1-4 eggs that are pale blue with brown markings.
Towhee nests are sometimes targeted by cowbirds. The invaders lay their own eggs in the towhee nest and their stronger, more aggressive chicks out compete the parent’s own babies. But Abert’s towhees have resisted predation and habitat loss. Small numbers continue to show up in newly expanded ranges along Oak Creek near Sedona and along rejuvenated reaches of the Santa Cruz River south of Tucson.
This ability to adapt is why we see the birds around town. Did you know if you see a group of Abert’s towhees together you can claim you’ve seen a tangle of towhees? Or if it seems appropriate, a teapot of towhees works too.