Poetry Month, Week Three: Barbara Crooker’s Towhee

A male Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus...
A male Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) searching for food on the ground. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As the immortal Bard once said, “A Tohee / by any other name would sing the same.” Okay, I admit it, I might have misquoted. But you get the idea. Birds’ names sometimes evolve, usually because, in the process of studying them, we learn new things about them.

In this case, the Rufous-sided Towhee was once thought to be one species. And though I still tend to think of the Towhees I see while out birding in Penn’s Woods as Rufous-sided, they have officially been designated a separate species from the Spotted Towhee of the west. The folks at Audubon’s “Birdnote” have a nice little summary of the way bird names have changed over the years. It even includes a bird I saw yesterday, the Northern Flicker, which went the opposite direction. Instead of two species, Yellow-shafted and Red-shafted, it is now considered one species with multiple variations.

Spotted Towhee
Spotted Towhee (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whew. And then there’s the pronunciation. I’ve always said it like this: “Toe Hee.” But when I listened to the recording in the above link, my heart sank. I had already recorded today’s poem, but what the heck was this lady was saying! “Towy?”

So I went into research mode and discovered that it can be pronounced both ways. Several articles and every dictionary (for what it’s worth—I’m not sure they actually consult ornithologists) seemed to mention only the pronunciation I have used for years. And while it doesn’t discuss how to say Towhee, Kevin McGowan’s article did a lot to soothe my nerves. As he says:

If it bothers you when people say it differently than you do, lighten up. They’re just birds, for goodness sakes, and THEY don’t care what you call them.

None of these name-changing or pronunciation issues do anything to lessen the deceptively simple beauty of today’s poem by Barbara Crooker. A few articles were rather vague about how the Towhee’s name had something to do with it’s “che-wink” call,  but you can clearly hear in the bird’s song the comforting encouragement to “Drink your tea.”

The poem’s epigraph is from another favorite poet of mine, Jane Hirschfield. Thank you, Barbara Crooker, for writing this poem, which I discovered for the first time today, following so aptly the time I spent in the forest this weekend.

More on that next time.

You can read along in the winter 2014 edition of Little Patuxent Review: A Journal of Literature and the Arts. (Check out more from that issue by clicking here).

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Brian Dean Powers says:

    I was introduced to Barbara Crooker’s work several weeks ago at Words for the Year (https://wordsfortheyear.com/2018/04/07/sometimes-i-am-startled-out-of-myself-by-barbara-crooker). In her book, Radiance, I found a poem that has the musicality I crave in a poem.


It is the season of no return, winter not done
with us, spring yet to arrive. Scruffy lawns
turn a little greener; daylight preens, spreads
its feathers. Grackles fan their wings,

    clatter and clack in the maple trees,
making a racket that passes for song.

    Startled, they pour out of the woods,
a long black scarf unwinding

    in the cold west wind.

    Their raucous talk, a thousand fingernails

    scratching on glass or a chalkboard,
shreds the air. Black cross stitches,

    embroidering the blue bunting sky,
they are the X, the unknown quantity
in every equation. They mark the spot

    where we cross the equinox,

    the resurrection of the woods,

    moving from darkness
into the light.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh dear god, that’s lovely. Thank you for passing that one on, Brian. Funny, I’ve been sitting here reading ancient, old , and new bird poems for the last hour or so, and then you share this beauty.

      Liked by 1 person

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