Friday, December 10, 2010

Green-tailed Towhee

Alternate title: Green-tailed Towhee in the freezer

One of the species found in Brewster County that gets people's hopes up is the Green-tailed Towhee. Aside from the fancy name, they're essentially a large, ground-loving sparrow with a fantastic 'personality' in the field. As with other towhees, they can be hard to spot; this post is about one that was a bit too cooperative.

After recapturing the Black-chinned Hummingbird on Dec. 8th (and woefully flubbing the Allen's), Matt and I made our weekly Alpine run for groceries and had lunch with our beloved banders, Kelly and Carolyn. On our way to lunch, about 10 miles east of Alpine, I saw a little lump of 'White-crowned Sparrow' on the shoulder. Being quite positive in my ~70 mph identification, due to bold black/white stripes with gray, I was tempted to not turn around; but you need to take advantage of wide shoulders and good visibility when you can. Often your ID is wrong at 70 mph and you just can't pass that up. Behold the towhee. I've brushed things off before: small looking Great Horned Owl was actually a Long-eared Owl, lumpy looking Mourning Dove was actually a Burrowing Owl (I was hoping for Upland Sandpiper). The bottom line is that you just don't know unless you stop.

It's a sad day when you find any dead bird. Windows, domestic & feral cats, cars, power lines and the ever-stealthy habitat loss are huge problems for bird populations. Without going too much into those statements, let me add this: any dead bird is valuable to science. Most academic institutions have permits to 'collect' (read: shoot) specimens. Better to live and let live, though, right? So finding a dead bird that would be useful to science is a joy; and most dead birds that aren't completely flattened are useful in some way. Beaks, feet and wings are studied even when the rest of the body can't be preserved. As such, this towhee ranks pretty high on the list of fresh specimens. And it's a regional specialty for the state.

Since all native North American bird species are protected by federal law, you do need permits even to pick up the bodies. Texas A&M provided me with the permits to 'salvage' birds, so they can be brought back to the TAMU collection for study. Birds in hand are infinitely fascinating. Subtle feather coloration and textures that can't well be appreciated through binoculars jump out in hand - the leading edge of this towhee's wing is bright, lemon yellow. While you may catch a glimpse of that in the field, seeing it up close is another story (the top photo in this post shows the yellow very well). In the field, you may notice the rufous crown and greenish back with gray head and throat... but you may not see the white belly, beige vent and the thin, black bristles around the beak.

A little back story... The summer between 3rd and 4th grade, my mother and I found a road-killed adult male Indigo Bunting near Rockport, TX. Fascinated by the brilliant blue, we looked up the bird in an old color-sorted Audubon photo guide and positively identified it. We then buried the bird. Years later, an American Coot was found on the side of a road - its feet were the most amazing things I'd ever had a chance to examine - that bird marked the beginning of donations to the Houston Museum of Natural Science and later U. C. Santa Cruz and finally TAMU. Rule of thumb: if it's fresh, rare, or has useful parts, let it go to science. Non-natural deaths do not need 'natural' burial if it can go to good use!


  1. Such a gorgeous, stealthy-at-times, winter resident!

    Glad it was salvageable. Dr. A should be looking forward to receiving it for the TAMU collection.

  2. We live in Austin in a wooded area. We like birds but aren't serious birders. It is early April, a relatively wet and cool season so far. We just had a burst of activity at our birdbath. Never seen them before. Googling "texas green bird" brought up your post and pictures, which seem to match best. (The other best guess is female painted bunting, of which I have seen exactly one.) Didn't notice the crest color at all, but the shape is reminiscent. There were a few of them, shuttling back and forth nervously from a nearby tree, hovering "in line" while the one before took a turn. They startled at the first sign of movement from us. Seemed young and visitor-y. Anyway, thanks for the helpful post.