Eastern Towhee

Pipilo erythrophthalmus

Eastern_Towhee_male_eating_3-8-16.jpg

Photo of an eastern towhee male, eating, three-quarter view.
Eastern towhees scratch vigorously in fallen leaves and sing a telltale “drink your teeeeee!” and “chewink!”
Jim Rathert
Family

Emberizidae (towhees, sparrows, longspurs, buntings) in the order Passeriformes

Description

Adult upperparts are black in male, brown in female, with large white spots in the outer edges of the tail and on the primaries. Underparts are white, with rusty sides and flanks and tan under tail feathers. Song is two whistled notes followed by a higher trill, often described as drink your teeeeeeeee. Call is a rising towhee or chewink, often indistinct or slurred to che-ee.

Similar species: The closely related spotted towhee is an uncommon migrant in western Missouri, less common in eastern Missouri. The upperparts have white wingbars and white spots on wings, tail, and back. The American robin has gray upperparts with darker head, white around the eyes, and a yellow, not dark bill. The Baltimore oriole has underparts brighter orange, and wings with white wingbars.

Size

Length: 8½ inches (tip of bill to tip of tail).

Eastern_Towhee_male_3-8-16.jpg

Photo of an eastern towhee male, side view, eating birdseed on a rock.
Eastern Towhee (Male)
Male eastern towhees are black above. Underparts are white, with rusty sides and flanks.

Eastern_Towhee_female_3-8-16.jpg

Photo of an eastern towhee female perched on a clod of dirt.
Eastern Towhee (Female)
Female eastern towhees are brown above. Underparts are white, with rusty sides and flanks.

Eastern_Towhee_male_foraging_3-8-16.jpg

Photo of an eastern towhee male, scratching in leaf litter.
Eastern Towhee (Male)
Seeking insects and other food, eastern towhees scratch at the leaf litter with both feet at once, by hopping backwards.

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Photo of an Eastern Towhee
Eastern Towhee
Habitat and conservation

Eastern towhees live in thickets, brushy areas, glades, and streamside thickets. They often appear at bird feeders during migration. Towhee numbers have been declining in the past 50 years because thick, shrubby, brushy areas are shrinking: Today’s vast, unbroken croplands lack the patchwork of shrubby thickets and fencerows that used to be common; subdivisions and other developments are kept clean of brushy places; and yesteryear’s shrublands have matured into more open, less suitable forests.

Foods

Towhees forage on the ground for insects, spiders, small reptiles, seeds, and berries. They scratch with both feet at once, by hopping backwards, hunting for prey on the exposed ground. If you stand quietly in the woods or near a tangled thicket, you might hear dry leaves being tossed about. Fallen leaves keep the ground moist, creating an excellent habitat for many insects. Try sifting some leafy soil through a piece of half-inch screening over a bucket, and see what you find.

Distribution in Missouri

Statewide.

Status

As a summer resident, common statewide but uncommon in the southeast. As a winter resident, uncommon in the east; rare elsewhere. Eastern towhee numbers are declining across their range. Eastern and spotted towhees used to be considered forms (subspecies) of a single species, the “rufous-sided towhee.” Ornithologists change common as well as scientific names to reflect the degree of relatedness. When the rufous-sided towhee was split into separate species, the common names were changed.

Life cycle

Cup-shaped nests are built on the ground amid fallen leaves. They are made of bark strips, twigs, leaves and leaf stems, and so on, and lined with grasses, fine roots, and other fine materials. A clutch comprises 2–6 eggs, which are incubated 12–13 days. The young are mostly naked and helpless upon hatching but are ready to fledge after 10–12 days. There are 1–3 broods a year. Like many other ground-nesters, towhees use distraction displays to lure potential predators away from the nest site.

Human connections

Preventing pet cats and dogs from roaming freely through the forests, woods, and thickets allows many ground-nesting birds to return to your area. Try keeping housecats indoors. Also, spaying and neutering prevents unwanted population growth of cats, which is a major survival problem for birds.

In old-time Ozark dialect, towhees were called "joree-birds."

Ecosystem connections

When small and middle-sized predators are abundant, the reproductive success of ground-nesting species is usually greatly reduced. Skunks, raccoons, opossums, snakes, and other native animals take a reasonable share of towhees, but cats and dogs can upset the balance and locally eradicate towhees.