An Eastern Towhee’s SEEE Calls

About this time of year each fall, I start to listen for the calls of White-throated Sparrows. These handsome, plump sparrows with bright white throats usually arrive from their summer homes in the north sometime in October. Their haunting, whistled songs are perhaps our most beautiful winter music.

As they forage for food in leaf mulch below and around shrubs in yards, thickets, vacant lots and fields, they also keep in touch through short, sibilant contact calls that sound like tseet. This quiet, low call is one that I’ve long thought of as familiar – and yet, every year about this time I think I hear them long before I actually do. It’s wishful thinking, mainly, but possible because there are several other songbirds that spend a lot of time in the same kind of habitat – and some of them have calls that are very similar to those of White-throated Sparrows.

This morning when I heard a call that sounded like a tseet, I stopped beside a large group of shrubs and listened, and almost immediately, an Eastern Towhee flew out of a bush and up to a low branch just over my head, where it perched, and called again, a soft, sweet seee.

Eastern Towhees are among our most common birds here, known for their drink-your-tea song, and rich chewink call. But I had never recognized this quiet seee call, which they use to keep in touch with other Towhees as they search for food. The Birds of North America species account describes it as a “lisp call,” and notes that it is perhaps the second most common Towhee call, after chewink. It is “high-pitched, clear, sibilant . . . soft, thin, barely audible beyond a few meters. . . . evidently functions as a contact note.”*

Now I’m not at all sure I’ll be able to tell the difference between the calls of a White-throated Sparrow – and those of an Eastern Towhee – not to mention other similar sounds. Calls like these can be pretty subtle and confusing, and I have no doubt that I’m wrong more often than right in identifying them. But I’m looking forward to trying, and maybe learning more.

*Greenlaw, J.S. (2015). Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) version 2.0. in The Birds of North America (P.G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

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