A Killer Cat and a California Bird

I see him creeping across the yard, his eyes fixated forward, and body tense. What is he up to? I call to him. There is no response. He is intent upon his adventure. Then I hear it. “Chink, chink, chink.” Oh, no it’s a bird. Where is it? I spot it in the grasses and weeds by the fence. “No birds,” I shout to the cat to no avail. He is honed in on his target. I must act. I lean down and grab some large pieces of bark and heft them as hard as I can at the unsuspecting bird hoping he will take flight. But no, he only flits up to perch upon the fencepost. And then its “chink, chink, chink” as loud as can be. Don’t you know little bird, there is a killer afoot?


I realize that I have been hearing this loud chirping in the neighborhood for some days now. I don’t recognize this bird. I know I haven’t heard its song before. It always seems to sing its tune around dusk. Sometimes it comes floating down the wind from above so I know that whoever he is, he is in the tree or up on the power pole. I need to get a good look at him and study his colorings and markings. Better yet, I need to take his picture!

I stomp at the cat to make sure he is no longer interested in attacking and redirect him to his food bowl. The bird is still singing away but is high enough now up on the drain of the neighbor’s garage that for the time being he is safe. “Just don’t fly back down to the ground,” I say to him as I open the door and dash inside to get the camera. When I return, he is perched again on the fencepost, a better spot for getting a photo, but precarious in relation to the cat. I shoo the kitty away, take aim, focus on the bird, and start shooting. Yes, I got him!


Now to study the results, and wade through the bird book. Brown all over, but with a spot of rust under his chin and under his tail, he is a bit smaller than a robin. Not a warbler, that’s for sure although he certainly likes to sing loud enough. Not a thrush, not a finch, certainly not a sparrow. What are you? And then I turn a page and there is he is. What luck! He is a California Towhee. Ha! I should have known him. He is quite common. But I am sure that he has never visited my yard before. I wonder what the attraction is now.

My old Audubon book of western birds identifies my bird as a Brown Towhee. Sibley’s guide and Kaufman’s guide say it is a California Towhee. I wish the people in charge of bird names would be consistent and quit changing them on us.

To further complicate matters, the California Towhee, or Brown Towhee, consists of two geographical races. My bird is a coastal variety and there is also an interior bird not sharing the rusty color markings of the coastal type. I am surprised that the bird gods haven’t made them two distinct species. But wait! They have. There it is plain as day in the Sibley’s, the interior bird is now called a Canyon Towhee.

According to all the guides my California Towhee likes to grub around in the leaf litter which is just what he was doing when the killer cat spied him. The books further identify his song as a “chink, chink, chink” that progressively gets louder and faster. I agree.


Another day finds me looking out the window into the back yard and there are four California Towhees pecking away at the scrubby grasses. I continue to see the four birds for more than a week, coming and going, flying about, trilling their “chink, chink” song. At times all four perch on the fence posts. As days go by I begin to see less of them. Now three, now two, now one. My heart gives a sad lurch. I think I know what is happening. The killer cat has struck and won. The bird’s undoing is its amorous attraction to the leaf litter and low-growing grasses and then that loud song is the clincher. There is no way the cat can miss him.

The cat, and about six others like him, prowl the neighborhood on a daily basis hunting for a food bowl. It is tough for the birds. Still I am glad I had the opportunity to meet the California Towhee. My hope is that he got wise and left the area for a better foraging spot. And maybe one day I will hear his cheery song again. “Chink, Chink, Chink!”

California towhee on fencepost