Slice of Life

Towhee trumps zzz’s

Early alarm raises mystery; where's that beep-peep coming from?

ktanner@thetribunenews.comMay 16, 2013 

A California Towhee perches atop a pile of adobe bricks at the Dana Adobe in 2002.

CAMBRIAN FILE PHOTO BY JOE JOHNSTON Buy Photo

Oh dear. I hear my alarm again. It’s about 5:30 a.m. on a Sunday, not quite daylight. I don’t have to be up for a couple of hours, if then. But I didn’t set my alarm. I cannot turn it off.

It isn’t a clock. It’s a metronome-repetitious chirp that sounds like a one-note squeaky hinge or size-10 bolt trying to wriggle into a size-6 nut.

It continues in its regular pattern, just until it was certain it had done its job of waking me from a sound sleep. Then it might go silent. Or go away, I don’t know which. That made it even tougher to track down.

Also, I’d hear it in spurts, as it morning-chirped for weeks at a time, and then vanish for a couple of peaceful months.

I spent hours trying to locate that “Mom, I’m running out of battery” wail of a dying cell phone, chirp of an errant smoke alarm, or even, indeed, an alarmingly rhythmic squeaky hinge.

However, for the past few weeks, the piercing sound was around much longer each morning, returned frequently during the day — and seemed to be coming directly from our fireplace chimney. Which, by the way, makes an ideal echo chamber.

We don’t use the fireplace to burn wood, or anything else for that matter. With an asthmatic husband who’s allergic to smoke, and bad memories of a house fire, our idea of a cozy evening’s diversion isn’t sitting around watching a blazing fire on the hearth.

So, whatever Chirp-Chirp is, it wasn’t going to be incinerated by our fireplace.

Maybe it knows that. Maybe that’s why it’s there.

Finally, I narrowed the odds down to it being some sort of metallic-sounding bird.

Swell! Maybe smart-little-bird is building a nest in the flue. Then there’ll be lots more little chirp-chirps before the crack of dawn. Noooooo!

I do love living in the forest with the deer, foxes and bobcat, the turkeys and a soaring eagle. But there are hazards, such as the nearly foot-long lizard lurking in our garage. Every time we try to nudge him back onto his own turf, he slithers under the treadmill, or hides beneath the pantry shelves. Do you know how much stuff I’d have to unload before I could budge even a corner of the pantry to find the lizard?

Nope, as long as he stays in the garage, we can avoid each other. Happy bug munching, buddy. Lizard comes into the house, though, and it’s war.

Meanwhile, Chirp-Chirp keeps on playing alarm clock.

I’ve tried earplugs, which just seem to magnify the noise. Hide the head under the pillow? Funny, but I’ve really grown to love breathing.

Then, recently, I was outside listening to Chirp-Chirp chattering at me again (and again and again), when I saw friend/neighbor Galen Rathbun, who knows birds so much better than I do.

“Hear that, Galen?” I asked. He did. “Do you know what it is?” I asked.

“A bird?” he offered not-so-helpfully, with a sly grin and twinkling eyes.

“Uh, yeah, I’ve figured out that much,” I replied, a bit dryly. “But what kind of bird? It wakes me very early every morning.”

Soon, Galen conjectured our little alarm-bird is either a brown California towhee or a black phoebe. Great! We have color choices.

Then, with binocs in hand, he strode out into our meadow to track the beast and identify it for sure.
Beast wasn’t cooperating. So Galen went home, vowing to try again.

Fortunately, once a birdwatcher, always a birdwatcher, never to be thwarted in identifying the elusive avian creature. And indeed, less than an hour later, Galen had tracked down Chirp-Chirp’s heritage and sent me confirmation by email: www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/California_Towhee/id.

At least I now know for sure what’s waking me up: A towhee, an innocuous, small brown bird known for its “loud, sharp, metallic chip” of a chirp. No kidding.

But, in keeping with our close relationship for so many sleepless mornings, I think I’ll call him/her “Towhee-hee,” envisioning a mischievous little birdy that’s laughing merrily at me as I yearn wistfully for a snooze button.

Kathe Tanner is a reporter for The Cambrian and The Tribune. Her "Slice of Life" column appears biweekly. Email her at ktanner@thetribunenews.com and follow her on Twitter @CambriaReporter.

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