Town is quiet these days. Most students are still 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.  Even so, it’s rare for Dash and I to have the trail all to ourselves for very long but today was an exception. We left home later than usual so maybe all the cyclists, runners, and other dog-walkers had come and gone.

Not far along on our regular route I heard a feathered fellow shouting his heart out from the power lines above. I peered upwards and saw the black, white, and terra cotta of an Eastern towhee. I’ve read descriptions of the towhee’s call as “Drink your tea!” Maybe so, but to my ears it sounds like, “Drink your tea-hehehehe!”

I stood still for as long as terrier-boy would tolerate, enjoying the sight and sound of such a serious sparrow with 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’s breeding season, after all, when males tend not to stray far from home base.



Further down the trail… more tea, more giggles. I felt like I was witnessing a musical baton being passed as part of an auditory relay…




Drink your tea-hehehehe!…






Drink your tea-hehehehe!…






Drink your tea-hehehehe!





It was a game of Telephone in which all of the players are excellent listeners who repeat the phrase exactly, with perfect fidelity and zero degradation… but since garbled messages are the whole point I didn’t know why all these towhees were laughing. But I’ve heard birds calls I couldn’t distinguish by ear, then saw the sonograms (graphical representations of sound) showing clear variations I didn’t have the acuity to notice. Maybe if I had bird ears I’d be in on the joke.

Meanwhile, I really need a cup of tea (and I don’t even like tea).

Who’s playing telephone in your neighborhood?  Share your experiences and comments below!

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Matt Stratmoen, Kenneth Cole Schneider, Jen Goellnitz, Keith Carver, Tom Murray, Kelly Colgan Azar, and Alberto_VO5.© 2017 Sidewalk Zendo. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

2 thoughts on “Telephone

  1. Ihave been feeding crows, started with a single crow, on my mailbox. Today two crows were waiting on my mailbox in the early morning, joined by their four offspring from other years. The sounds are different. More like “Ma, ma, ma…”


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