This post was contributed by Megan Martin, lead author of a paper in a recent issue of the The Wilson Journal of Ornithology documenting her findings on the ecology and behavior of towhees in the nonbreeding season.
As a member of the Honors Program at Eastern Kentucky University, I was expected to write an undergraduate thesis. Since my major was wildlife management and I had just completed an incredible internship with the National Audubon Society, I knew I wanted to study birds. With the help of Dr. David Brown, I began to research a quirky shrubland bird known as the Eastern Towhee. We are only beginning to understand the non-breeding season ecology of shrubland bird species. The amount and quality of food that an individual bird is able to find in the non-breeding season seems to have lasting effects through other seasons of the year, potentially affecting its arrival time on its breeding grounds, health, survival, and breeding success. Therefore, winter habitat quality may have population-level impacts. We hope that learning more about the winter behavior of these birds will give us a greater understanding of what factors have led to population changes, especially since towhees and other shrubland bird species are in decline.
To capture our target shrubland species, we lured species into mist nets (large nets used to capture birds in flight) using a decoy and call playback. The Eastern Towhees at our site proved to be stubborn birds, flying into nets but somehow bouncing out and evading capture. Since they were so wily, it was quite the adrenaline rush to finally see a black, rusty-sided, angry-eyed bird hanging in a net! Dr. Brown came to my aid to extricate the first precious Eastern Towhees, but soon I gained the confidence and prowess to remove them on my own. I placed a captured bird into a cloth bag and made my way toward our processing area. We gave the birds a numbered silver band and colored bands to aid in identification, attached a radio transmitter to their backs, recorded some basic demographic data, and released them into the sky.
I would begin to radio-track a new individual a day after capture, returning a few times each week to locate the birds with my receiver and Yagi antenna. The receiver beeps loudest in the direction of the radio-tagged bird, allowing a person to follow those beeps, which grow louder as one approaches. I knew I had found my bird when I saw a flash of a black tail and a leg with colored bands or saw a black bird rise and fly away as the beeps from my receiver grew fainter. When I saw the bird, I recorded its behavior over the next few minutes. I recorded its location on a paper map and noted other bird species in its flock. Throughout the study, I compiled over 500 locations into a computer mapping program, where I determined the size of each tagged bird’s home range, the area where they spent most of their time. Graduate student Kaitlyn Kelly ran statistics to help us better understand how Eastern Towhee behavior may be influenced by temperature, wind, and snow cover.
Our study site’s most abundant habitat type was blackberry scrub, but our Eastern Towhees preferred woody shrub. As for weather, wind speed and temperature did not significantly influence behavior, but in subfreezing temperatures birds spent less time foraging on the ground and more time in woody habitat Snow cover resulted in greater use of woody habitat, fewer songs and more calls, and a trend toward larger flocks.
Now six years removed from this study, I chuckle to myself as I remember my mother fussing at me for not carrying my cell phone with me as I walked around the study site alone with my antenna in hand. I have memories of walking around slowly at times, as the blisters on my heels rubbed my worn-out boots. I almost slipped down a snowy hill once, but I caught myself last minute to prevent a fall. Another time I was checking roost locations at night, and a small covey of quail suddenly flushed in front of me, scaring me half to death! I also remember a cow that got loose into our fenced-in study site. The poor thing was in there for weeks until the farmer placed a pile of feed near the entrance of my study site to attract it. The feed succeeded in attracting birds as well—we saw some of our biggest flocks of towhees (20-30) feeding on this pile of corn in the snow.
Since my first study of Eastern Towhees, I have grown and changed and had many more experiences. I will forever be thankful that I had the opportunity to track and observe these amusing little birds. I was always amazed and impressed at their habit of foraging by jumping up and kicking back their feet to reveal any insects beneath leaf litter. I remember the disappointment when a bird was predated. I will never forget their piercing eyes and their friendly “Towhee!” call and how excited I was to note the first “drink your tea” song in the spring. This study was one of the several formative experiences that gave me a love for birds and led me to avian research for my master’s thesis at Mississippi State University and a job in avian conservation at the Southern Region of Ducks Unlimited. I am thankful that I had the opportunity to do undergraduate research and invest so much of my time in honing radio telemetry and GIS mapping skills that would prove useful in jobs to come.