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Species Profile: Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus)

     The Eastern towhee is a relatively commonly encountered large New World sparrow.  Being sparrows, they have several sparrow characteristics, including a thick, triangular bill used for cracking seeds, chunky body, and long, rounded tail.  They are most easily identified by the rufous-colored patch of feathers along the side of their bodies (hence an alternate name, the rufous-sided towhee).  This is one specie that exhibits color dimorphism, in which the male has a black head, neck, back, and tail with a creamish-white breast and rufous sides, while the females have a brown head, neck, back and tail with the same breast and side coloration.  They tend to be within 6.5 and 8.2 inches in length, with a wingspan ranging from 8 to 11 inches.  Most towhee “spottings” should more aptly be deemed “hearings,” as it is far more common to hear these birds than actually spot them in thick underbrush.  Towhees make two characteristic sounds: one that is the classic “chewink” call, and the “drink-your-tea” sound, which is a classic male song. 

Habitat

    Towhees are found in several habitats, including brush, tangles, thickets, and along forest edges where there’s plenty of leaf litter.  Their main habitat requirements appear to be a preponderance of leaf litter and dense understory vegetation, which keeps them relatively concealed from predators.   Towhees forage for a variety of meals in the leaf litter, including 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.  Their primary means of collecting this food is a sort of backwards hop in which they use both feet to gather some leaf litter and jump to move it out of the way, an often noisy process.  They are omnivores.  Because of their wide dietary range, towhees play a variety of roles in their environment, including control of insect populations and seed dispersal. 

Reproduction

     Towhees nest as early as March in Florida and as late as May in New England, building nests either in the shrubbery or on the ground.  Nests are bowl or cup-shaped, with an outer diameter of 4 inches and an inner bowl 2 inches wide.  Building materials of choice include bark strips, twigs, dead leaves, leaf stems, and occasionally cardboard or string, while the inside is lined with finer dry grasses, small roots, and sometimes animal hair to provide a softer surface.  The female is entirely responsible for nest building, which may take her up to five days, and in this nest she will lay between 2 and 6 creamy colored eggs with brown speckles (egg coloration will vary from individual to individual).  These eggs will be incubated for almost 2 weeks, after which the altricial babies, featherless and blind, hatch.  Within 2 weeks, they are branchers and only need the parents for supervision.  However, it is during the nesting period when towhees are most susceptible to predation.

     Threats to the towhee include nest predation by a range of predators, including raccoons, domestic cats, snakes, and blue jays.  Once adults, they are still susceptible to hunting mammals as well as some raptors and snakes, should they ambush an unsuspecting towhee.  Though the towhee remains in fairly healthy numbers, their numbers are declining, one of the main culprits being parasitism from the brown headed cowbird, which likes to lay its eggs in towhee nests.  When a cowbird lays its own egg in a towhee nest, it will often throw out one of the towhee’s eggs, so the towhee will be less likely to do the math. 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Eastern Towhee

Common name: Eastern Towhee

Scientific name: Pipilo erythrophthalmus

Habitat of choice: Forest edges or scrubs

Protection status: Species of Least Concern

Lifespan: 4-6 years

Male

Female

Fun facts:

  • The oldest recorded towhee was 12 years, 3 months  old.

  • The Eastern Towhee and Spotted Towhee (its western counterpart) used to be considered the same species, the Rufous-sided Towhee.  Though now separate, their ranges do overlap in the Great Plains, where they occasionally cross-breed.

  • Eastern Towhees are generally solitary and somewhat territorial, and in territorial displays, they will briefly display the white corners of their tails by flicking their tail up and down, as well as behaviors to “bulk up” (i.e., wing drooping, puffing up feathers, standing taller, etc.).  Territorial disputes are mainly for the sake of the food in that territory rather than having a wider range.

  • During migration seasons, Towhees can be spotted in multi-specie flocks (temporarily staving off their territorial aggression).

  • Species they are commonly misidentified as: American Robin, Dark-Eyed Junco, Spotted Towhee, Baltimore Oriole, and American Redstart.

 

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