Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
June, 2007
Regional Report

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Can you spot the towhee nest, with its tea packet wall?

Tea-Drinking Towhees

A shriveled tea bag hanging 5 feet up in my Baja red fairy duster shrub stopped me in my tracks. Although I like to compost, and my space is limited, I have not yet gone so far around the bend that I suspend kitchen waste from my plants! I stared, slack-jawed, thinking "How did it get there?"

My eye followed a trail of four tea bags through the shrub until I caught sight of a single cream-colored herbal tea bag wrapper that I recognized as a brand I'd been drinking recently. Only then did I spot the bird's nest. It was well camouflaged, with the exception of that colored packet, which had been used as an upright "wall" in the nest. The site was also well protected by overhanging thorny branches from a volunteer bee brush (Aloyssia sp.). These branches look dead -- at least they're full of dead leaves -- but I hadn't yet inspected closely or removed them because I needed a step ladder to avoid the thorns. Now those branches will stay in place for the nest's duration to provide security. (My motto of "Procrastination Pays Dividends" often comes into play in the garden.)

It occurred to me that a couple of very industrious Abert's towhees (Pipilo aberti) had been working the compost pile a week earlier. And I had tossed a dozen or so tea bags into the compost at that time. I cover fresh additions with dried leaves and partially decomposed compost, but evidently I didn't cover the tea bags enough to dissuade the towhees. The bin was full, and the birds had stood right on top of the organic matter, rummaging through it with great enthusiasm, like bargain hunters at an estate sale. I don't know if enthusiasm is a characteristic that scientists apply to birds, but these towhees appeared to have plenty of it. I assumed they were hunting insects, but evidently "herbal tea" appeared on the day's shopping list. I suppose they hauled the tea bags to the nest but the attached strings got tangled and the bags were left to dangle in the branches.

Know Thee Towhee
Abert's towhees make delightful, and yes, enthusiastic, garden helpers. In their search for insects and seeds, they scratch and forage through the top layers of leaves and soil, bobbing and bouncing along in a busy manner. Their action helps break down the organic matter, aerate the top layer of soil (every little bit helps), and of course, keeps insects in check.

They live year-round in Arizona's low and mid-level deserts, and may also be seen in limited ranges in New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and California, according to Audubon. Their natural habitat is cottonwood trees along streambeds, but as riparian areas are being degraded at an alarming pace, their population, like many other species, is declining. However, Abert's towhees seem to be adapting to urban environments. I've enjoyed them for many years in the midst of the city, and know other gardeners who do the same. (Although, I also know a gardener who did not appreciate towhees scattering her freshly sown vegetable seeds from tidy rows to a more haphazard configuration.)

A pair will typically mate for life and stay within their territory. If you offer thick vegetation providing shelter (allow low branches to remain on trees and shrubs) and a reliable water source, you may attract these fun-to-watch birds to your landscape. Offering a spot of tea seems to help as well!

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