This university town is always less crowded during the summer. Most students are at home or on summer internships, faculty and graduate students are using the break to slip away for some R&R or doing research at field sites, and there are no home football games to bring in alumni and supporters of the opposing team. While I enjoy the school year, and recognize how much Blacksburg depends on the university and related personnel, I do my best to pause and catch my breath from mid-May to mid-August.
That includes plenty of walks with my wire fox terrier, Dash, along a leafy section of the Huckleberry Trail, a former railroad easement. Tt’s rare for Dash and I to have the Huckleberry trail all to ourselves, at least not for very long. Usually we share with cyclists, runners, and other dog-walkers.
But one mid-July day was an exception. I guess we must have left a bit later than usual, but regardless of the reason, the trail and surrounding suburban backyards were quiet enough for me to hear a feathered fellow shouting his heart out from the power lines above.
I peered skyward and saw the black, white, and terra cotta of an Eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus)). I’ve read descriptions of this bird’s call as “Drink your tea!” but to my ears it sounds like, “Drink your tea-hehehehe!”
I stood still for as long as Dash could stand it, enjoying the sight and sound of a serious sparrow with a major case of the giggles. Then we picked up the pace and continued walking.
Several minutes later… more giggling. Were we being followed? Most likely is was a different individual; it was breeding season, after all, and males tend not to stray far from home base and the Mrs.
Further down the trail… more tea, more giggles. I felt like I was hearing a musical baton passed from one bird to the next in an auditory relay…
Drink your tea-hehehehe!…
Drink your tea-hehehehe!…
Drink your tea-hehehehe!
I can recognize a game of Telephone when I hear it! In this case, though, all of the players were excellent listeners who repeated the phrase exactly, with perfect fidelity and zero degradation. Since garbled messages are the whole point and fun of Telephone, I wasn’t sure why all these towhees were laughing.
I’ve heard recorded birds calls I couldn’t distinguish by ear but the sonograms (graphical representations of sound) showed clear variations my hearing wasn’t sensitive enough to notice. Maybe if I had Towhee ears I’d be in on the joke.
When Dash and I returned home I had the strangest craving for a cup of tea (strange because I don’t even like tea).
Who’s playing telephone in your neighborhood? Share your experiences and comments below! And if you’d like a little Next-Door Nature delivered right to your inbox, click the “subscribe” link in the upper right-hand corner of this page to receive notifications for new posts!
[© 2018 Next-Door Nature, Sidewalk Zendo. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author. Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Pat Gaines, Alberto_VO5, devra, Mike’s Birds, Amanda, Ken Schneider, marneejill, and Keith Carver.]