Tale of the tapping towhee, by Marilyn Goldhaber

At first, I wondered if my husband had a secret admirer. I could hear a tapping at the window of his study, like someone wanting to get in. But when I went to investigate, no one was there. Then again— tap, tap, tap— and I saw him, a chubby, brown bird earnestly pecking and flapping at his own reflection. He continued this way all day long.

That evening I told my husband, and we had a good chuckle. The next day it started again. I cleaned the window and took down a bird kite that we had strung on the study wall, thinking that it might be the attraction. But within minutes, the little fellow was at it again ... tap, tap, tap at the same ground level window.

This was in early March, around the time our bookkeeper comes in to help out. Being a resourceful young woman, she went straight to Google and entered: “bird tapping at the window.” She turned up a delightful article by naturalist Marcia Bonta on tapping towhees. “Aha, it’s a towhee!” we said, “and others have had them too!”

We confirmed the identity of our little bird in Western Birds by Frank Shaw. While many towhees are spotted and colorful, the California towhee (Pipilo crissalis) is plain and brown ... and highly territorial. This was definitely our guy. According to Bonta, the male busies himself singing and defending his territory while his mate builds their nest, lays the eggs and broods over them for 3 to 4 weeks (about the duration of our tapper’s stay). Bonta had her own tapping towhee story and indeed found other accounts of tappers as determined as ours.

“While his mate was incubating ... a male towhee discovered his reflection in the windows of a nearby house,” wrote F.W. Davis of Massachusetts. “From crack of dawn until dark he attacked his image with time out only to feed. He would flutter against a pane for a few seconds, take a few tentative but firm pecks at it, retreat, give a few ‘drinkyour-tea’ calls, and then return to drive off the interloper...He continued this behavior even after the eggs hatched. On his way to feed the young with a beakful of larvae he usually tarried long enough to make a few sallies. Ultimately he fought with— and smeared— every window in the house.”

Bonta writes that poet Brendan Galvin also hosted a tapping towhee. In his “Poem of the Towhee” he says: “This one has bunted the window all spring, baffled by glass...”

So, if you ever find a towhee tapping at your window, you’re in good company.