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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.

Year End Match
Birds of North America Online

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
6.8–8.2 in
17.3–20.8 cm
Wingspan
7.9–11 in
20–28 cm
Weight
1.1–1.8 oz
32–52 g
Relative Size
30% bigger than a Song Sparrow and twice as heavy. Smaller than a robin.
Other Names
  • Tohi à flancs roux (French)

Cool Facts

  • The Eastern Towhee and the very similar Spotted Towhee of western North America used to be considered the same species, the Rufous-sided Towhee. The two forms still occur together in the Great Plains, where they sometimes interbreed. This is a common evolutionary pattern in North American birds – a holdover from when the great ice sheets split the continent down the middle, isolating birds into eastern and western populations that eventually became new species.
  • Eastern Towhees are common victims of the parasitic Brown-headed Cowbird. Female cowbirds lay eggs in towhee nests, then leave the birds to raise their cowbird young. In some areas cowbirds lay eggs in more than half of all towhee nests. Towhees, unlike some other birds, show no ability to recognize or remove the imposter’s eggs. Female cowbirds typically take out a towhee egg when laying their own, making the swap still harder to notice.
  • Eastern Towhees tend to be pretty solitary, and they use a number of threat displays to tell other towhees they’re not welcome. You may see contentious males lift, spread, or droop one or both wings, fan their tails, or flick their tails to show off the white spots at the corners. Studies have shown that male towhees tend to defend territories many times larger than needed simply to provide food.
  • The oldest known Eastern Towhee was 12 years, 3 months old.

Habitat


Scrub

Eastern Towhees are characteristic birds of forest edges, overgrown fields and woodlands, and scrubby backyards or thickets. The most important habitat qualities seem to be dense shrub cover with plenty of leaf litter for the towhees to scratch around in. Towhees occur in the Appalachians to about 6,500 feet, but favor warm and dry south-facing slopes more than cool, moist northern faces.

Food


Omnivore

Towhees eat many foods: seeds, fruits, insects, spiders, millipedes, centipedes, and snails, as well as soft leaf and flower buds in spring. They also eat seeds and fruits, including ragweeds, smartweeds, grasses, acorns, blackberries, blueberries, wheat, corn, and oats.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–6 eggs
Number of Broods
1-3 broods
Egg Length
0.8–1 in
2–2.6 cm
Egg Width
0.7–0.7 in
1.7–1.9 cm
Incubation Period
12–13 days
Nestling Period
10–12 days
Egg Description
Creamy, grayish, pinkish, or greenish white, spotted and speckled with brown, reddish brown, purple and gray.
Condition at Hatching
Naked except for sparse tufts of grayish down, eyes closed, clumsy.
Nest Description

The nest consists of a 4-inch wide outer cup made of bark strips, grapevine bark, twigs, dead leaves, leaf stems, and sometimes string or cardboard. Inside is an inner cup about 2 inches wide and 1.5 inches deep lined with fine, dry grasses, rootlets, and sometimes animal hair. The female does all the building, typically taking up to 5 days to finish.

Nest Placement

Ground

Eastern Towhees usually nest on the ground, the nest cup sunk into the fallen leaves up to the level of the rim. In some cases they build their nests in shrubs or grape, honeysuckle, or greenbrier tangles, up to about 4 feet off the ground.

Eastern Towhee Nest Image 1
© René Corado / WFVZ

Eastern Towhee Nest Image 2
© René Corado / WFVZ

Behavior


Ground Forager

You’ll typically see Eastern Towhees rummaging in the leaf litter or creeping through thick shrubs. Towhees tend to hop wherever they go, often moving deliberately and giving themselves plenty of time to spot food items. They scratch at leaves with a characteristic two-footed backward hop, then dart after anything they’ve uncovered. When a female first enters a male’s territory, he chases her as if she’s unwelcome. Over the next few days he becomes tolerant and then attentive, following the female everywhere she goes. Eastern Towhees have large white tail corners which they flick and flash in response to other towhees or when disturbed.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Eastern Towhees are commonly seen throughout their range, but their numbers have been decling by over 1 percent per year since 1966, resulting in a cumulative decline of about 44 percent, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population to be 28 million, with 100 percent found in the U.S. and 1 percent breeding in Canada. They rate an 11 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are a U.S.-Canada Stewardship Species. They are not on the 2012 Watch List. Eastern Towhee numbers rose in the mid-twentieth century as people stopped farming and their fields grew up. Later, construction of subdivisions and the continued growth of shrublands into forest made the landscape less suitable. Eastern Towhees are still numerous, but their populations have declined recently.

Credits

Range Map Help

Eastern Towhee Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Short-distance migrant. Birds north of Virginia and southern Indiana move south during the winter, with some birds moving as far as southern Texas. Birds in the Southeast may not migrate at all.

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