• Skip to Content
  • Skip to Main Navigation
  • Skip to Local Navigation
  • Skip to Search
  • Skip to Sitemap
  • Skip to Footer
Help develop a Bird ID tool!

Eastern Towhee

Pipilo erythrophthalmus ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: EMBERIZIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Eastern Towhee Photo

A strikingly marked, oversized sparrow of the East, feathered in bold black and warm reddish-browns – if you can get a clear look at it. Eastern Towhees are birds of the undergrowth, where their rummaging makes far more noise than you would expect for their size. Their chewink calls let you know how common they are, but many of your sightings end up mere glimpses through tangles of little stems.

Drink Birds & Beans coffee. Save our birds.
Yard Map Birds Eye View

Keys to identification Help

Sparrows
Sparrows
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Towhees are a kind of large sparrow. Look for their thick, triangular, seed-cracking bill as a tip-off they’re in the sparrow family. Also notice the chunky body and long, rounded tail.

  • Color Pattern

    Males are striking: bold sooty black above and on the breast, with warm rufous sides and white on the belly. Females have the same pattern, but are rich brown where the males are black.

  • Behavior

    Eastern Towhees spend most of their time on the ground, scratching at leaves using both feet at the same time, in a kind of backwards hop. They spend lots of time concealed beneath thick underbrush. You may see this bird more often when it climbs into shrubs and low trees to sing.

  • Habitat

    Look for Eastern Towhees in brush, tangles, thickets, and along forest edges where there’s plenty of leaf litter for the birds to forage in.

Range Map Help

Eastern Towhee Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult male

    Eastern Towhee

    Adult male
    • Black head, chest, back, wings, and tail
    • Dark, stout, conical bill
    • Rufous sides
    • White spot on middle of wing
    • © Jean Kuns
  • Adult female

    Eastern Towhee

    Adult female
    • Brown head, chest, back, wings and tail
    • Rufous sides
    • White belly
    • When foraging on ground, long tail often cocked upward
    • © CLO/GBBC
  • Adult male

    Eastern Towhee

    Adult male
    • Black hood and white belly
    • Rufous sides hidden by wings
    • Large white spots on underside of tail
    • When agitated, sometimes shows slight crest
    • © Gerry Dewaghe, North Carolina, May 2008
  • Immature male

    Eastern Towhee

    Immature male
    • Brown head and back, with black wings and tail
    • Buffy tips to wing feathers
    • Dark eye
    • Rufous on sides not very apparent
    • © WarblerEd Schneider , Whites Creek, Tennessee, September 2008
  • Adult male

    Eastern Towhee

    Adult male
    • White outer tail feathers
    • Long, rounded tail
    • Pale rufous undertail
    • White belly
    • © Birdfreak.com , Cherry Valley, Illinois, April 2008
  • Adult male

    Eastern Towhee

    Adult male
    • Black head, chest, back, wings, and tail
    • Dark, stout, conical bill
    • Rufous sides
    • White eye (red in other forms)
    • © Greg Bishop , Florida, October 2008
  • Adult female

    Eastern Towhee

    Adult female
    • Brown head, chest, back, wings and tail
    • Rufous sides
    • White belly and white spot in middle of wing
    • When foraging on ground, tail often cocked upward
    • © adf6879 , Virginia, April 2008

Similar Species

  • Adult male

    American Redstart

    Adult male
    • Similar to adult male Eastern Towhee
    • Slender and petite, with thin black bill
    • Black upperparts and breast
    • Bright orange patches on sides of breast, wings, and base of tail
    • White belly and flanks
    • © Gerry Dewaghe, Manitoba, Canada, June 2007
  • Adult

    American Robin

    Adult
    • Dark head with white eye arcs and chin
    • Rusty red breast, belly, and flanks
    • Gray back and wings; no white markings
    • Thin yellowish bill
    • © Debbie McKenzie, Alabama
  • Adult male

    Baltimore Oriole

    Adult male
    • Similar to male Eastern Towhee
    • Bright orange underparts
    • White wingbars
    • © quietriver250, Iowa, May 2008
  • Adult male

    Spotted Towhee

    Adult male
    • Similar to adult male Eastern Towhee
    • Back and wings boldly flecked with white
    • White wingbars
    • No white wrist patch
    • © Jamie Chavez, Santa Barbara County, California, September 2007
  • Adult female

    Spotted Towhee

    Adult female
    • Similar to adult female Eastern Towhee
    • Back and wings boldly flecked with white
    • Grayish brown head, red eye
    • © Jeff Larsen, Washington, December 2008
  • Adult male Oregon

    Dark-eyed Junco

    Adult male Oregon
    • Black or dark gray hood
    • Rusty sides and flanks, white belly
    • Brown or reddish brown back and wings
    • Pink bill
    • © Gerry Dewaghe, December 2008

Similar Species

Spotted Towhees have striking white spots across the back and wing coverts. You might briefly confuse a female Eastern Towhee with an American Robin because of the warm reddish underparts and brown back, but towhees are more compact than robins, with a much shorter, thicker beak and white on the belly. Juvenile Eastern Towhees are pale brown and streaky, like many sparrows and female finches. The best way to identify them is by their characteristic size and shape: bigger than other sparrows, with longer, white-cornered tail.

Regional Differences

A subspecies in southern Georgia and Florida has a pale yellow eye instead of the red eye seen elsewhere in the East.

Backyard Tips

Eastern Towhees are likely to visit – or perhaps live in – your yard if you’ve got brushy, shrubby, or overgrown borders. If your feeders are near a vegetated edge, towhees may venture out to eat fallen seed.

This species often comes to bird feeders. Find out more about what this bird likes to eat and what feeder is best by using the Project FeederWatch Common Feeder Birds bird list.

Find This Bird

Walk slowly along the edges of forests, thickets, and old fields. Listen carefully for the Eastern Towhee’s scratchy chewink call, its bright song, or simply any rustling the bird makes in dry leaves. Then lower your eyes to ground level and scan the leaf litter, looking for a scratching towhee or the bright white corners of the bird flashing its tail at you.

Get Involved

Watch for Eastern Towhees foraging for fallen seeds under your bird feeders – then send us your observations as part of Project FeederWatch

Learn more about bird photography in our Building Skills section. Then contribute your images to the Birdshare flickr site, which helps supply the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's websites with photos, including All About Birds.

You Might Also Like

Eastern Towhee from Bent's Life Histories of North American Birds (1968)

Find in-depth information on Eastern Towhees and other hundreds of other birds for as little as $5 in The Birds of North America Online from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and American Ornithologists' Union

eBird Occurrence Maps, Eastern Towhee