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  • Writer's pictureJ. Darris Mitchell

Spotted Towhee

Bird of the Week: 2/05/2023

There’s a park in Austin that I adore called Commons Ford. It’s an old ranch that was bought by the city in the 80’s. There are a few old structures and a row of truly magnificent pecan trees that are planted so evenly that there can be no doubt they were planted by humans and not bluejays, but much of the park has been restored as a prairie of native grasses and wildflowers.

I first went there in April of 2016 and was amazed by the bounty of wildflowers and the birds and insects that called them home. Commons Ford is proof that rewilding works. People can take an area, reintroduce native plants, give it time, and it will attract many of the creatures that once called it home. However, managing a prairie is not as simple as planting some grasses, scattering some seeds and sitting back.

For a prairie to thrive, it has to burn.

Fire is an important part of the grasslands in America. Lighting has always played across the landscape, but more significantly, Native Americans regularly used fire to clear out dead brush and accumulated plant matter for thousands of years. Regular burns encourage the sort of environment that big animals—namely hooved prey and their predators, humans—really like. Think of cows on a pasture in the shade: big healthy trees in a field of grasses and flowers. Central Texas gets enough rain that without fire, the prairies—even the ones as small as the patch at Commons Ford—would cease to be. Brush would grow and accumulate until lightning struck, and then it would all burn. This happened in Bastrop in 2011 and seems to have been continually happening in California for most of my life. Regular, smaller burns prevent the accumulation of fuel that can make fires spread to the canopy and destroy our mature trees.

Which is why they set Commons Ford on fire.

I didn’t see the burn itself, but we went shortly thereafter, soon enough that the charred landscape had only just barely been able to recover. We arrived early in the morning and piled out of the car to find a blackened field barely visible through the mist.

We scanned the field, looking for birds in the mist.

Honestly, there weren’t many. What had once been a field of grasses and brush at least a meter high was now burned earth. We set out on a mowed path which was oddly now one of the lushest places in the entire park.

But even here, in this wasteland that—for the time being anyway—was quite desolate, we found birds.

In a mesquite tree covered in mustang grape vines that surely would have burned in a more intense fire, I found a Spotted Towhee.

Central Texas is great for sparrows in the winter, and the Spotted Towhee is one of our finest specimens. It has rich orangey-red flanks, a white belly, a black back and chest, and a long tail. Its black wings are speckled with white spots, and if you’re lucky enough to see its eye, it’s the same red-orange as its flanks.

Normally, the Spotted Towhee is rather difficult to see, since it skulks along the ground in, hiding in bushes and tall grasses. But today, there was nowhere to hide. The closest thing it had to cover was some leafless vines, a couple of meters off the ground.

I reveled in the sun on its flanks, a rare sight indeed, and wondered if it would stick around long enough to see the prairie regrow.

By April, the Spotted Towhees will be mostly gone from Central Texas, and the wildflowers and grasses of Commons Ford should be back. If you can, try to make it out there before then, to get an idea of just how regenerative these plants can be, and what a managed ecology is truly capable of doing.

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