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Eastern Towhee Life History


ScrubEastern 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.Back to top


OmnivoreTowhees 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.Back to top


Nest Placement

GroundEastern 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.

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.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:2-6 eggs
Number of Broods:1-3 broods
Egg Length:0.8-1.0 in (2-2.6 cm)
Egg Width:0.7-0.8 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.
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Ground ForagerYou’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.Back to top


Low Concern

Eastern Towhees are numerous and commonly seen throughout their range, but their numbers declined by an estimated 1.4% per year for a cumulative decline of about 53% between 1966 and 2019, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 29 million and rates them 11 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of relatively low conservation concern. Numbers of these birds 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.

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Ehrlich, P. R., D. S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye (1988). The Birder's Handbook. A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds, Including All Species That Regularly Breed North of Mexico. Simon and Schuster Inc., New York, NY, USA.

Greenlaw, Jon S. (2015). Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. (2020). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.

Partners in Flight. (2020). Avian Conservation Assessment Database, version 2020.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2019). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2019. Version 2.07.2019. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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