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Eastern Towhee

Common Name: Eastern Towhee.

Scientific Name: Pipilo Erythrophthalmus.

What to look for?  At first glance, the bird appeared to be a robin. There was red - but only on its sides. The bird was the Eastern Towhee. The male has black throat, head and upper-parts. Sides are red or rufous. And the belly is white. On the corners of its tail are white marks which are quite visible when the Eastern Towhee is in flight. Females differ as they have a brown head, throat and back, not black. Eastern Towhees are in the sparrow family and have their characteristic thick, triangular bill.

Where can they be found at Carillon Stonegate Pond? This is one bird that we may hear more often than actually see. Look for them walking on the ground or in the shrubs and bushes, especially where leaf litter has accumulated.

How big are they? The Eastern Towhee averages just over seven inches in length. And their wingspan is approximately ten inches. They weigh in at around one and one-half ounce.

What are their flight patterns? The flight of an Eastern Towhee is the “flap-bound” style where several rapid wing beats are alternated with wings pulled to sides. You may see them on short bouncy flights.

How else do they behave? The Eastern Towhee uses a distinctive 2-footed scratching behavior. It backward hops to drag and displace loose litter on the ground and uncover hidden prey. They spend much of their time concealed beneath thick underbrush.

What’s for dinner? Eastern Towhees are omnivores and will diet on seeds, fruits and insects. The diet varies with the season. In summer, their diet includes more insects, including beetles, caterpillars, moths, and many others. In spring, they may add soft leaf and flower buds. Seeds and fruits include ragweeds, smartweeds, grasses, acorns, blackberries, blueberries, wheat, corn, and oats.

Where do they take up residence? Eastern Towhees reside across eastern North America - from southern Canada, down to Florida, and west to eastern Texas. They are usually found in tall grass prairies, marshes, thickets, overgrown fields, scrubby backyards or at the edges of brushy woodland. The most important habitat qualities seem to be dense shrub cover with plenty of leaf litter for the Eastern Towhees to scratch around in.

When and where do they breed and nest? 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, but no more than about four feet off the ground. The female never flies to this well-disguised nest rather she lands several feet away, then walks to the nest, using available foliage to conceal her entrances and exits. The breeding season varies with location. In the northern parts, most breeding activities occur between April and November and, in the south, the breeding season may start as early as March and continues to late summer.

Where do they migrate? Eastern Towhees that reside in the northern portion of their range (north of Virginia across to Nebraska) move south during the winter. Birds in the southeast may not migrate at all.

What is their conservation status? There is low concern. According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, the Eastern Towhee has seen slight decreases in populations. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 29 million.

Do they make any interesting sounds? Apparently, the classic Eastern Towhee song is a loud “drink-your-tea!” that lasts about one second. The first note (drink) is sharp and metallic, and the final note (tea) is a musical trill. The most common call - often as an alarm call - is a two-parted, rising “chewink”, “tow-hee”, or “joree”.  Here is a link to the sounds of the Eastern Towhee.

Interesting Facts About the Eastern Towhee:

  • The name "Towhee," an imitation of this bird's call note, was given in 1731 by the naturalist and bird artist Mark Catesby.

  • A group of towhees are collectively known as a "tangle" and a "teapot" of towhees.

  • Eastern Towhees are common victims of the parasitic Brown-headed Cowbird that lay eggs in their nests and then leave the Eastern Towhees to raise their cowbird young.

  • Eastern Towhees tend to be pretty solitary, and they use a number of threat displays to tell other towhees they’re not welcome, including spreading wings, fanning tails, or flicking tails to show off the white spots at the corners.

  • The oldest known Eastern Towhee was approximately 12 years old.

For more information on the Eastern Towhee and sources of information used in this blog (these are the sources that I am using to learn as I blog), please visit All About Birds, Audubon Society and National Geographic.  And the Cornell Lab of Ornithology provides a wonderful source of information for anyone interested in learning more about birds.

The Carillon at Stonegate community is very fortunate to have a variety of wetland, forest and prairie environments conducive to a variety of birds and other wildlife, plants and insects. Our community and the Kane County Forest Preserve do an exceptional job in maintaining this natural environment – both for the benefit of the birds and wildlife and for our residents to enjoy.


Take a hike and see what you can find – and identify!

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