Eastern Towhee’s fall under the category of birds that are more often seen than heard. Their calls and song are familiar to many, however towhee’s like to stay hidden in the undergrowth and can be hard to spot. If you have the right conditions in your yard, they may come to visit or even nest. Let’s find out more about these secretive but lovely birds with 18 interesting facts about eastern towhees.
18 Interesting Facts About Eastern Towhees
1. Eastern Towhees are members of the sparrow family.
While they may not look like the typical “little brown birds” that make up much of the sparrow species, Eastern Towhees are considered a large sparrow. They are noticeably longer and heavier than even the good sized song sparrow.
2. Males and females share the same pattern but are differently colored.
Both male and female eastern towhees have white chests and warm rufous (orange) sides, with a dark head, back and tail. In males the dark coloring is black, and in females it is brown.
3. Their eyes aren’t always the same color
In most cases, Eastern Towhees have dark eyes. They can sometimes appear as a deep red, especially visible on the males. However in parts of the far southeastern U.S. such as Florida up through Alabama to North Carolina, a white-eyed variety is found.
4. They are often identified by their song and calls.
In some parts of the country they are called “chewink” birds, after their common two-part call (sounds like chewink). Their classic song is described as “drink-your-tea” with “drink” being sharp and loud and “tea” being a trill.
5. Their name comes from their call
Naturalist Mark Catesby named first the bird in 1731, thinking that its common call sounded like it was saying “tow-hee”.
6. What is a group of towhees called?
A group of towhees (although not commonly found in a group), is a “teapot” or a “tangle” of towhees.
7. Eastern Towhees are short distance migrants
While they don’t travel a long distance, they do have distinct winter and summer ranges. They can be found year round in the southeast, as far north as lower Ohio and as far west as the Texas border. For New England and the Great Lakes areas, they are only a spring/summer bird. Parts of eastern Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas will see them only during the winter.
8. They used to be called the Rufous-sided Towhee
The western counterpart to the Eastern Towhee is the Spotted Towhee. For a long time these birds were lumped together and just called the Rufous-sided Towhee. But as birds become more widely studied, differences in plumage, calls and genetics makes it possible to divide them into narrower groups. It was decided in the late 1990’s that the eastern and western towhee’s should be split.
9. Eastern Towhees are pretty solitary
They may be more tolerant of each other during the non-breeding season, but in spring and summer males don’t tolerate each other much! They will use threat displays such as fanned out tails, tail flicking, and spread wings to warn off other males.
10. Eastern Towhees usually nest on or close to the ground.
Ground nests are sunken into leaf litter, with leaves surrounding the nest up to the rim. They will also nest in shrubs and tangled briar up to about 4 feet above the ground. The female will do all the nest building.
11. Eastern Towhees can have up to three broods per year.
Typically having 1-3 broods per year, each brood will consist of 2-6 eggs. Most commonly it is 2 broods with 3-4 eggs. The inside of the nest cup is softened with fine grass, downy plants or animal hair.
12. Their nesting period is relatively quick
They incubate the eggs for 12-13 days before hatching. After hatching, nestlings stay inside the nest for just 10-12 days. Both parents take care of the young during this period.
13. Fledged eastern towhees still get help from mom and dad
If you come across a fledged nestling on the ground, leave it alone. The parents are likely nearby. Once fledged, the young towhees will hop around on the ground following their parents looking for food. Mom and dad will still feed their babies like this for a few days. This teaches the young how to find their own food.
14. Eastern Towhees have a diverse diet
A real forager, towhees have a well rounded diet of seeds (including grasses and weeds), fruits (berries) and insects such as spiders and centipedes.
15. They find most of their food on the ground
Towhees are masters of scratching around through leaves to find seeds and insects. They can often be seen doing a backwards hop, using their feet to push leaves behind them and uncover what is beneath. When not on the ground, they will creep through shrubs.
16. Eastern Towhee population has declined
Eastern towhee numbers have declined by nearly half between 1966 and 2015, however their population is still high enough to not be considered a bird “of concern”. This decline has been more extreme in north eastern states, where populations in the south have remained more stable. Farming and housing construction has reduced much of their historical shrubland habitat, and use of pesticides reduces their food source.
17. Will Eastern Towhees visit feeders?
Yes, sometimes. They will not fly up to hanging feeders and perch. But if they are present in your yard they may come to the area directly beneath your feeder to pick up fallen seeds off the ground. They like milo, millet, oats and cracked corn. You are more likely to see them if your feeders are close to a shrubby edge.
18. How can I attract towhees to my yard?
As we’ve said, towhees love to dig around in leaves and vegetation. So you’ll have to have some un-manicured areas of your yard to get their attention. Patches of woods, unkempt brush and overgrown shrubs, especially along your yard borders, will help.
Eastern Towhees have very pretty and recognizable coloring. Yet their dark back and orange sides blend so well with the forest floor, sometimes you only spot them by listening for them rustling through the leaves. These large and beautiful sparrows are a real treat to encounter. Incorporating unkempt borders and non-grass ground cover can help to attract them to your yard.
Melanie is an environmental scientist, birdwatcher, and amateur photographer. She’s been a birding hobbyist for years and loves feeding and learning about birds of all types. Over the years, Melanie has identified more than 250 bird species, with sightings of the Atlantic Puffin, Hawaiian Goose, and Arctic Tern among her most cherished.