6 Species of Towhees in the United States

Towhees are a group of birds found in brushy habitats of North America. There are six species of towhees found in the United States, each with its own unique characteristics and adaptations. Here are some interesting facts and descriptions about the towhee species found in the United States.

Article Highlights:

  • Towhees are a group of ground-foraging birds found in the brushy and scrubby areas of North America 
  • There are 6 species of towhees regularly found in the United States
  • To attract towhees to your backyard, create a habitat that includes low-growing plants and leaf litter, scatter food on the ground, and plant native shrubs and plants.

Towhees in the United States

What is a towhee?

Towhees are a type of bird found throughout many regions of North America. These ground-dwelling birds belong to the family Passerellidae, which also includes American sparrows and juncos. Towhees can be found with a variety of plumage colors, and tend to fall between a sparrow and robin in size. 

Towhees can often be found foraging for food among low-growing vegetation and leaf litter, using their short, conical beaks that are adapted for cracking open seeds and catching insects. They are known for their distinctive “double footed hop” method of foraging. They stand in place and scoot their feet back and forth, tossing aside ground cover to search for food. 

They are often known for being on the shy side when it comes to humans, moreso than familiar backyard birds like chickadees, titmice and jays. However they definitely will visit backyards and feeders if the environment is right. We will talk more at the end of this article about how to attract them. 

Let’s dive in to a description of each of the U.S. towhee species. 

6 Towhees in the United States

  1. Eastern Towhee 
  2. Spotted Towhee
  3. Canyon Towhee
  4. Albert’s Towhee
  5. Green-tailed Towhee
  6. California Towhee

1. Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus)

The Eastern Towhee is a widespread species of towhee found in the eastern United States. Many remain in the southeast year-round. Others migrate short distances, moving from the south in the winter to breed in the summer north of Virginia and Indiana.

Eastern Towhee’s have a rusty orange stripe along their side, a white belly and red or dark eye. Males have a black head, back and tail while females have a brown head, back and tail. There are a few subspecies of the Eastern Towhee recognized that may have slight variations by location. One of the most well known is the “white-eyed” Eastern Towhee, who has a pale eye rather than red. They are found in parts of Alabama up through North Carolina. 

Eastern Towhees forage on the forest floor, picking through leaf litter and hopping back and forth to scrape the ground and dig around for insects and seeds. Look for them on forest edges, overgrown fields and thickets. Spring and summer hikes in the right habitat will surely be filled with their song. Males sing “drink-your-tea”, with the final note being a trill. Their other common sound is a rising “che-wink”. 

They often nest on the ground in a slight depression surrounded by fallen leaves, but also a few feet off the ground in tangles and shrubs. Unfortunately they often fall victim to cowbird parasitism, as do most towhee species.


2. Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus)

spotted towhee

The Spotted Towhee is basically the western counterpart to the Eastern Towhee. They look extremely similar, expect the Spotted Towhee has visible white spotting on their upper wing. Like their cousins, they have a white belly, rufous sides, males have black upper parts and females have brown upper parts.

In the middle of the country where their ranges overlap, Eastern and Spotted Towhees will interbreed. They actually used to be considered the same species, and were called the Rufous-sided Towhee. But today they are viewed as separate species. 

Spotted Towhees remain year round in California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Oregon and western Washington. A population spends winters in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, then migrates to eastern Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming to breed. Like the Eastern Towhee, there are several subspecies of the Spotted Towhee that have slight regional variations. 

Find them in brushy areas, forest edges, fields, canyon bottoms and even shrubby backyards. They eat mainly insects they find while foraging on the ground such as beetles and weevils. You’ll see them doing their two footed backward hop to dig through leaf litter. They nest on the ground or close to the ground.


3. Canyon Towhee (Melopiza cynoptera)

Canyon Towhee | image by Alan Schmierer via Flickr

The Canyon Towhee is a species of towhee found in the southwestern United States. They reside year-round in Arizona, New Mexico, western Texas and parts of Colorado. These towhees prefer desert grassland and shrubby, rocky areas. Their diet includes a lot of small seeds and berries, but also includes grasshoppers, millipedes and other small insects. 

Unlike the first two towhees on this list, adult males and females look the same. They are a dusty, gray-brown all over with a rufous patch under their tail. They have a slight warm hue on the top of their head and a buffy chest. This coloring really helps them blend in with the dirt of their dry habitat. 

Canyon Towhees can fly, but they often prefer to scurry along the ground. To make sure they have good supplies of water when they need it, they often time their nesting with winter and summer rains which will produce a bloom of plants and insects. In the right habitat they will visit backyard feeders, and enjoy milo (sorghum), millet and black sunflower.


4. Abert’s Towhee (Melopiza aberti)

alberts towhee
Abert’s Towhee, Visitor’s Center, Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, California | image by Alan D. Wilson via Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 2.5

Abert’s Towhee is a species found in a very small range of the southwestern United States. Mainly found in the lower Sonoran desert of Arizona, some are also in select areas of California, Nevada, Utah and New Mexico.

They are pale brown overall with a dark face, rufous under the tail and warm brown on the chest and belly. They look similar to the California Towee that we will mention further down this list, but they have a more distinct dark patch on the face, and their ranges don’t have much overlap.

Albert’s Towhees like brushy cottonwood-willow riparian habitats and keep themselves hidden in bushes. They stick closely to their small territory for most of their life. They seem to do fine in the suburbs, and are even known to be regularly found on the Arizona State University campus. Those that live in their range can attract them to their yard by providing water, native plants and seed.

Males and females often for a pair bond that lasts for life. This way they are ready any time of year to take advantage of good environmental conditions for nesting, such as rain and subsequent plant and insect booms. Insects make up the majority of their diet, even in the winter.


5. Green-tailed Towhee (Pipilo chlorurus)

Green-tailed Towhee| image by abbeyprivate via Flickr

Green-tailed Towhees have unique coloring among the towhee species. Adults of both sexes have olive-green wings and tails, a gray face, back and chest, a white throat patch and rusty red stripe on top of their head.

Green-tailed Towhees spend winters in Mexico, the Baja Penninsula, and southern parts of California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico. They move slightly further north to breed among the western states up to southern Montana. Like most towhees they prefer dense, shrubby habitat, although the Green-tailed Towhee may choose higher elevations in the spring and summer. Areas of former logging or forest fires provide good regrowth habitat.

Their diet is a mix of seeds, berries and insects. Nests are built 1-2 feet off the ground in dense stands of sagebrush, raspberry, juniper, oak or chokechherry. Females like to line the nest with animal hair if they can find it, cows, horses and even porcupine are used. 


 6. California Towhee (Melozone crissalis)

As it’s name suggests, the California Towhee is a species of towhee found in California and Baja California in Mexico. A small population also exists just over the northern border into Oregon. While they don’t migrate, they may move locally from lower elevations in the winter to higher elevations in the summer. They like hot scrublands and chaparral habitat.

Adults have a gray-brown plumage, with a rusty patch under the tail and some rusty hues on their face. They like to eat a variety of grass seeds, but also include berries and insects in their diet. They may visit backyard feeders for millet and other small seeds. 

While many hikers in California have to watch out for poison oak, the California Towhee thrives in the habitat where it’s found, and will even build their nests in it. Poison oaks white berries are also a good food source for these towhees. 


How do I attract towhees to my yard?

If you want to attract towhees to your yard, there are a few things you can do. Towhees are ground-foraging birds that primarily eat insects, berries and seeds, so providing a habitat that includes plants, shrubs and leaf litter is important. A huge lawn of nothing but mowed grass isn’t going to be very compelling to them. Properties bordered with bushes, shrubs, thickets, fields, or some woodland edge are much more attractive.  

Creating a brush pile or leaving leaf litter in some shrubby corners can also provide cover and nesting habitat for towhees. Remember, towhees prefer a natural habitat and may be deterred by areas that are too manicured or tidy. Just make sure to keep your yard free of chemicals and pesticides, as these can be harmful to birds and their food sources.

eastern towhee seed
Eastern Towhee (male) visiting seed tray | image by Dain Nielsen via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

While towhees do not visit bird feeders as readily or as often as other songbirds, they will come. Hopper or platform feeders would probably be best in terms of hanging feeders, however they are typically most comfortable on the ground. A platform or tray feeder that sits on the ground would work, or just keep it simple and scatter seed right on the ground. Toss some extra seed beneath your feeders and call it a day.

Many towhee species enjoy milo and millet, “filler” seeds that other birds aren’t as fond of. Luckily these are found as an ingredient in many seed mixes. Black oil sunflower is also a good choice.

Offering water is a good way to attract all sorts of birds. Especially in hotter and drier habitats in the southwest, water can really bring the birds to the yard. A typical pedestal bird bath would be fine, but to cater to towhees love of the ground, a bath that sits at ground level would be even better. Any large, shallow dish will do. Plant saucers without holes are often good for this.

With a little effort, you can create a welcoming habitat for towhees and enjoy the beauty and diversity of these fascinating birds in your own backyard.


What Do Towhees Eat?

Seeds, berries, grains and insects are the bulk of a towhees diet. Of course the species of plants and insects they choose depends on where they live. In general, here are some foods from each category that they are known to consume regularly:

Fruits:

  • Elderberries
  • Poison oak
  • Sumac
  • Coffeeberry
  • Blackberries
  • Blueberries
  • Wild grapes
  • Mistletoe berries

Seeds & Grains

  • Cracked Corn
  • Oats
  • Wheat
  • Ragweed
  • Grasses
  • Thistle
  • Buckwheat
  • Sorrel
  • Chickweed
  • Lupine

Insects:

  • Spiders
  • Millipedes
  • Centipedes
  • Snails
  • Weevils
  • Beetles
  • Ladybugs
  • Crickets
  • Grasshoppers
  • Caterpillars
  • Moths

By understanding what towhees eat, we can appreciate their role in the ecosystem and help to support them. By providing a habitat that includes low-growing plants and leaf litter, scattering food on the ground, and planting native shrubs and plants, you can attract towhees to your backyard and help to support these fascinating birds.