The Eastern Towhee is widespread across eastern North America. It is a nocturnal migrant whose “drink-your-teeeee” song is most frequently heard in the spring and summer. Eastern Towhees use their strong legs to hop backwards, dragging their feet to uncover seeds or insects. The nests of Eastern Towhees are often parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds, and towhees readily accept cowbird eggs. It is not known what effect this has on the ability of towhees to raise their own young.
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Description of the Eastern Towhee
The Eastern Towhee is s stocky, nearly robin-sized bird with a dark head and upperparts, a dark throat and upper breast, a white belly, and reddish-orange flanks. A white patch in the otherwise dark wing is visible in both folded and spread-wing postures. White tips in the corners of the dark tail are visible in flight.
The dark areas, including the head, upperparts, throat, tail, and wings are black in males. Length: 8 in. Wingspan: 10 in.
Visit the Bent Life History page for additional information.
The dark areas, including the head, upperparts, throat, tail and wings are brown in females.
Seasonal change in appearance
Juveniles are mostly brown, and heavily streaked below.
Eastern Towhees occur in brushy areas and open woods.
Primarily insects, seeds, and berries.
Eastern Towhees forage on the ground, often scratching with both feet simultaneously. They also forage for berries in trees or shrubs.
Eastern Towhees occur throughout most of the eastern U.S. The population has declined in recent decades.
Bent Life History
Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the Eastern Towhee.
The shape of a bird’s wing is often an indication of its habits and behavior. Fast flying birds have long, pointed wings. Soaring birds have long, broad wings. Different songbirds will have a slightly different wing shape. Some species look so much alike (Empidonax flycatchers) that scientists sometimes use the length of specific feathers to confirm a species’ identification.
Wing images from the University of Puget Sound, Slater Museum of Natural History
The Eastern Towhee was for a time not considered to be a separate species from the Spotted Towhee, although their vocalizations are very different.
The Eastern Towhee was once commonly known as the “chewink” for its call note, as seen in the poem Blueberries by Robert Frost where reference is made to this species eating berries.
The song is a musical whistle of “drink your teeeee”. The distinctive call is a “chewink” that gave the species its once commonly used name.
- Spotted Towhee
The Spotted Towhee is very similar but a little larger, and has extensive white spotting on the wings and upperparts. Ranges overlap in parts of the midwest.
The nest is a bulky open cup made of bark, leaves, sticks, and grass, and is usually placed on or near the ground.
Number: Usually lay 3-5 eggs.
Color: Grayish or white with dark markings.
Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 12-13 days, and leave the nest in another 10-11 days, though continuing to associate with the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the Eastern Towhee
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Eastern Towhee – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
RUFOUS-SIDED TOWHEE: EASTERN U.S. SUBSPECIES
?PIPILO ERYTHROPHTHALMUS (Linnaeus)HABITS
Contributed by JOSHUA C. DICKINSON, JR.
Mark Catesby (1731) in his description of the “towhee-bird,” commented “* * * It is a solitary Bird; and one seldom sees them but in Pairs. They breed and abide all the Year in Carolina in the shadiest Woods.” Vieillot, in redescribing Catesby’s “towhee-bird” as “Le Touit Noir” in 1819, added the following to the already growing store of information (translated from the French):
This species is numerous in the center of the United States where it remains through the summer and from where it migrates in Autumn to spend Winter in the South of the States. The Towhees, because of their short wings, cannot fly at much altitude or stay in the air for a long time; so they travel only by fluttering from hedge to hedge, from bush to bush, and they are never seen at the top of tall trees. They hunt on the ground for the different seeds they feed on, pushing the leaves and weeds that hide those seeds aside with their bill and feet; they seemed to me to be quite fond of small acorns [petits glands], eating usually only those that are fallen; they live in pairs through summer, gathering in families during September and large flocks toward the end of October, which is the time of their migration voyage which they accomplish in company with sparrows and blue and red fallow-finches. Those birds like to stay in summer in the thickness of thickets and at the edge of woods. Then we can see the male on the top of a medium height tree where he sings for hours at a time; his song is made of only a single short and often repeated musical phrase, but it seemed to me sonorous and pleasant enough to make me regret that the bird would stop as soon as there were young ones. The female makes her nest on the ground, in the weeds or under a thick bush, gives it a thick and specious shape; she makes it out of leaves, vines, and bark strips outside and lines it inside with fine weed stems. Her laying consists of five eggs of a pale flesh color with freckles more abundant at the larger end.
Since these early writings, many details of the life history of this ever popular bird have come to light. Presumably, both Catesby and Vieillot were referring to the bird that breeds in the northeastern United States although Catesby was more likely to have been familiar with the form occurring in Georgia and the Carolinas. Studies of geographic variation in morphology, migratory behavior, and breeding habits have today documented the propriety of recognizing four subspecies of eastern towhees (Dickinson, 1952). C. G. Sibley’s (1950) study of the allied western forms has confirmed their close relationship to the nominate eastern stock.
The four eastern races the 1957 A.O.U. Check-List recognizes are characterized as follows (Dickinson, 1952):
P. e. erythrophthalmus (Linnaeus). A large, small-billed, vividly colored, red-eyed form, showing a large amount of white on the rectrices. It breeds in the Transition and Upper Austral Zones east of the Great Plains from southern Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, and Maine southward through middle North Dakota, Iowa, Kansas, and northern Arkansas, and eastward through middle Tennessee, northern Georgia, and western South Carolina to the Atlantic coast in southern Virginia.
P. e. rileyi Koelz. A medium sized, large-billed race with variable eye color, and showing less white on the rectrices than its northern relatives. It breeds from western Florida and southeastern Alabama northeastward through southeastern Georgia and South Carolina to central coastal North Carolina.
P. e. alleni Coues. A small, medium-billed, pale-eyed race, showing very little white in the rectrices. It breeds in Florida from Franklin, Columbia, and Duval counties south to southern Dade County.
P. e. canaster Howell. A large, large-billed, pale race, with variable eye color, showing a medium amount of white on the rectrices. It breeds from eastern Louisiana and western Mississippi northward to southern Tennessee, eastward across northern Alabama and central Georgia and South Carolina to south-central North Carolina, and southward to the Gulf coast from extreme western Florida westward to central Louisiana.
Authors vary widely in their choice of terms describing the preferred habitat of the rufous-sided towhee. Some areas noted are hedgerows, thickets, brushy hillsides, and “slashings” (E. 11. Eaton, 1914); woodlands and swamps (E. E. Murphy, 1937); dry uplands near edges of woods or high tracts covered with a low brushwood (Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway, 1874b); brushy pastures (C. J. Maynard, 1896); and “thickets of willows, cottonwoods, and young sycamores, where wild sunflowers, horse-weeds and poke grow rampant, the whole woven together by the interlacing of wild cucumber vines” (A. W. Butler, 1898). Forbush (1929) says “He is a ground bird: an inhabitant of bushy land. No other sparrow in New England seems to be so wedded to life in thicket and tangle. * * * He spends most of his life in thicket, ‘scrub’ or sprout land, and so the bushy lands of Marthas Vineyard and Cape Cod are favorite resorts. He is not a dooryard bird except in winter, when necessity now and then drives one to a feeding station, but even then he spends most of his time in the shrubbery, coming out only to secure food. He may be found along bushy fences and roadsides, and often finds food or sand in country roads.” B. H. Warren (1890) states that they occasionally “visit potato vines and other plants on which the destructive Colorado potato-beetle feeds.”
F. M. Chapman (1932),writing of the “southern race” of the towhee, comments that it “does not associate with the northern bird, which is abundant in the south in the winter. The latter selects haunts of much the same nature as those in which it passes the summer, while the southern bird lives in heavy growths of scrub palmetto.”
My own experiences in the Gainesville region (where Chapman spent much of his time) and elsewhere over the entire range of P. e. aUeni do not confirm Chapman’s observations. Racially mixed flocks do occur in winter, and frequently. P. e. alleni is quite commonly found in habitats other than that of scrub palmetto. Sandpine (Pinus clausa) scrub in both the coastal dune and “Big Scrub” areas of Florida have this white-eyed towhee as a very conspicuous element along with the Florida Jay Aphelocoma c. coerulescens. When I spent a summer on Cape Cod, Mass., I was impressed by the obvious gross similarity of the species preferred habitats there and in Florida. The habitat of birds from near the type locality of P. e. canaster (Mobile, Ala.) and P. e. rileyi (Brunswick, Ga.) do not differ radically from those in which the towhee is abundant in peninsular Florida. In my experience, the species frequents early seral stages in both xeric and mesic successions, and whenever ruderal conditions approximate these natural situations one can usually expect to find towhees in abundance.
Courtship: Few comments have been made on the species’ courtship behavior. J. J. Murray (MS.) writes of his observations on Elliott’s Knob, Augusta County, and Lexington, Va. “Late in the afternoon I heard a towhee call and then saw him fly to the top of a bush. He then spread his tail into a fan with the white spots showing distinctly, raised his wings, and fluffed out his feathers until in the fog he looked twice his natural size. Almost at once a female appeared in a nearby bush. At another time, in my yard at Lexington, on October 22d, I saw a male, all alone, go through what was similar to a courtship display. Restlessly flying from branch to branch and from bush to bush, with fluttering wings and tail, he paused at times to sing a ‘whisper song.’ It was not the usual song, but a broken warble, low and husky and full of squeaks.”
W. E. C. Todd (1940) writes of this activity in Pennsylvania: “When the females appear, the wooing begins with a lively chase through the thickets. The white-marked wings and tails flash impressively as they are rapidly spread and folded in the courtship display.”
Frederic W. Davis writes me from Amherst, Mass., that “The males arrive first in late April, followed by the females a few days later. Adult and first-year males arrive together and seem about equally represented throughout the breeding season. For the first few days after their arrival the males are often found in small groups of four to eight birds.
“Females being pursued in full flight by two courting males are a common sight up through mid-May. The male whisper song is as prominent a part of courtship as the male-female chase. Another common courtship phenomenon is the male carrying nesting material such as dead leaves to the vicinity of the female, who then manipulates it. This behavior is particularly noticeable during pairing before the first nesting, less so before the second. In precopulatory display the female holds her back horizontal, raises her bill and tail, and utters a rapid high-pitched tetetetete.”
Nesting: F. W. Davis continues in his letter: “Site search and nest-building are carried on entirely by the female, who gathers all nesting materials within 60 feet of the site she chooses. Although building one nest covered a 5-day span, the female devoted only a few hours each day to placing the materials. The day after she finished the nest she visited it but once and remained only about 2¸ minutes. She came once the following day with a long piece of sedge and remained almost a half hour, but did nothing to the nest. She deposited the first egg the morning of the third day after nest completion.
“Incubation may start with the second egg of the clutch, or be delayed until the last egg is laid. Incubation takes 12 to 13 days. Two nests per season seem to be normal; the same mates are retained and the second nests are within the original territories. The laying of the first egg of the second clutch in four cases observed ranged from 8 to 21 days after the fledging of the first brood. A banded pair whose first brood was destroyed 7 days after hatching laid the first egg in a second and new nest 9 days later.”
J. S. Y. Hoyt (1948) describes a nest found June 6,1942, in a heavily wooded area near Ithaca, N.Y. It was built not more than three feet from the ground between two stems of a white pine and contained three young birds about 5 days old and one unhatched egg.
A. A. Saunders (1923) reports a nest found in New York on July 6 in a “silky dogwood” and another on July 13, also in a bush that contained four eggs. M. B. Trautman (1940) writes of finding nine nests. Of the nine, one contained six eggs, three contained four eggs or young, three contained five eggs or young, one contained four young and one cowbird young, and one contained six young and one cowbird egg. He continues:
The nest was made of grasses, rootlets, twiglets, bits of leaves, string, or shreds of bark; a few nests were lined with cattle hair. Four nests were built upon the ground beneath brush tangles, 2 were built in piles of dead brush over which a dense leafy tangle had grown, and the remaining 3 were 1 to 5 feet above the ground in vine tangles or upon small branches of bushes. The earliest nest with eggs was recorded April 30 (1929, 4 eggs), and the latest July 12 (1931, 6 eggs); the earliest nest with young was found May 11 (1929, 4 one-third grown young in same nest as of April 30), and the latest July 17 (1932, 4 young); the first fledging out of the nest was seen May 20 C1931), and the last August 4 (1930, at least 2 young being fed by parents).
Dayton Stoner (1932), writing of his experiences in New York, states that all nests he observed were located on the ground, but that on occasion a low bush served as a support or hiding place. He adds that the nests are made of “Dead leaves, grass and strips of bark * * * with a lining of fine grass.” He records both 4 and 5 eggs per nest. In Ohio, G. M. Allen (1909) discovered nests in the “higher, more open woods, as well as in the brushy tangles.” Merriam (1877), quoting the notes of the Stadtmüller brothers, describes a nest found under a cedar tree as being “composed externally of cedar bark, lined with grass and horse hair.”
B. H. Warran, writing in 1890, adds “a grass tuft” to the type of site that may be chosen. W. B. Barrows (1912) comments that in Michigan the towhee almost invariably nests on the ground. He adds that “Possibly one nest in fifty is built in a bush or tangle of vines a foot or two above the ground.” Also reported in Barrows are records by Wolcott of a single nest at Grand Rapids 8 feet above the ground in a tree and another at Ann Arbor placed on top of a stump. Barrows also states that two broods are reared almost always, one in June and another in July. Minnesota records from T. S. Roberts (1932) include a single nest found by Dr. Patton in a matted grape vine 11 feet 4 inches from the ground. L. H. Porter (1908), in writing of the nesting habits of birds at Stamford, Conn., following the cold spring of 1907, suggests that his finding of towhee nests in trees might have been the result of the unusual weather, but the many records of this habit under average conditions contradict this suggestion.
Russell E. Mumford kindly furnished this following condensation of his (1953) observation of what appears to be the highest towhee nest on record:
“On June 26, 1952, I was walking along an old road through a strip of second growth woodland near Freetown, Jackson County, Ind. I observed a bulky nest about 18 feet above the road placed in a bushy tangle where the tops of two small saplings of shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) and the vine of a wild grape (Vitis sp.) were interlaced. By shaking the trees lightly, I failed to flush off any bird, but a vigorous shaking caused a female Red-eyed Towhee to burst from the nest noisily scolding me. I could not examine the nest at this time, but on the following day took a pole with a mirror attached and noted that there were eggs in the nest. The adult towhee was not present at this visit. The distance from the base of the nest to the ground was measured and found to be 17 feet, 5 inches. About an hour later, I passed the tree again, shook the nest, and the adult female was again flushed off. As before, she was very excited and scolded me soundly as long as I remained in the vicinity of the nest.
“On July 4, the eggs were found beside the nest on the ground, both having been knocked from the tree in some way. The predominate trees at the nest site were saplings of shagbark hickory and white oak (Quercus alba). The nearest clearing was about 75 yards from the nest site and the tree canopy was completely closed over the nest.”
In peninsular Florida, where P. e. alleni is the resident subspecies, A. H. Howell (1932) writes that the nest is commonly placed in small bushes, 1 to 4 feet above the ground. Nests are occasionally found on the ground under palmetto leaves or brush piles. Howell adds that three eggs comprise the usual complement and that two or three broods are raised. Early nests are found in April, second broods in June, and third broods in August. II. H. Bailey (1925) describes a Florida nest as made of dry leaves, leaf stems, pine needles, and grasses, lined with fine grasses.
As expected, birds in the northern parts of the breeding range begin nesting activities somewhat later. However, it is interesting to note that by early May there are records from such points as Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Indiana (F. M. Chapman, 1932).
F. W. Davis writes me from Amherst that “The nesting season in our section of Massachusetts, based on estimated first egg dates, extended from May 15 through July 5, 1960, from May 18 through July 8, 1961, and from May 22 through July 14, 1962.” He continues: “I believe the male assists neither in incubating nor brooding. During incubation the female tends to join the male to forage, and he often accompanies her back to the vicinity of the nest, but I have never seen a male take part in any activities at the nest before the young hatched, except for occasional anticipatory food-bringing. The female develops a very prominent brood patch, the male no sign of one, nor has a male ever been observed on a nest. The female deprived of her mate can successfully fledge a brood, but no males have succeeded unless the young were old enough to need no brooding when the female was lost.
“Both parents are active in feeding the young and in nest sanitation. They eat the egg shells as soon as the young are out of them, and for the first few days they eat the fecal sacs; later they carry more and more of these away. Both parents also were seen to eat nest parasites. At first the adults feed the young by placing their bills into the gullet and pumping vigorously, seeming to vibrate their bodies as they do so. As the young grow this method diminishes and finally ceases. When the male brings food the female usually leaves, but in the early stages while she is still brooding the nestlings, she often just hops on the nest rim and watches while the male feeds them. Occasionally he gives her the food, or she takes some from him, and both feed the young together.”
F. L. Burns (1915) gives the incubation period for the nominate race as “12 to 13 days.” 0. L. Austin, Jr., informs me that at a nest in his garden in Gainesville, Fla., the period from the laying of the last egg to the hatching of the last egg was 13 days.
Eggs: The rufous-sided towhee lays from two to six eggs, most often three or four. They are usually short-ovate or ovate and slightly glossy. The ground color is grayish or creamy white and occasionally greenish white. They are more or less evenly speckled or spotted with “russet,” “chestnut brown,” “Carob brown,” “pecan brown,” or “Mars brown,” with underlying spots of “light neutral gray,” “or pale purplish gray.” On some eggs the undermarkings are quite numerous and on others practically nonexistent. The brown spots are quite sharply defined in most instances, often so profuse that they almost obscure the ground, but occasionally the markings are clouded. The spottings generally tend to become heavier toward the large end where frequently they form a solid cap. The measurements of 50 eggs of P. e. erythrophthalmus average 23.1 by 17.0 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 25.7 by 18.3, 24.4 by 19.3, 20.3 by 17.3, and 21.3 by 16.8 millimeters.
Plumages: As described by A. A. Saunders (1956), the skin of the newly hatched young bird is flesh colored, the mouth is edged with pale yellow, and the lining of the mouth is pink. The down is medium gray and occurs on the capital, dorsal, humeral, femoral, and secondary tracts.
J. Dwight (1900) describes the natal down of this species as “Pale clove-brown.” G. M. Sutton (1935) appears to be in agreement with Dwight. David K. Wetherbee has written me that “drabgray” is a better description. Both Dwight and Wetherbee used specimens of P. e. erythrophthalmus for their observations. My own observations of P. e. alleni conform with those of Wetherbee. Dwight’s (1900) detailed description goes on to state that the juvenal plumage of the male is —
acquired by a complete postnatal moult. Above, including sides of head, cinnamon-brown (often darker) somewhat obscurely striped, broadly on the back, more narrowly on the crown, with deep olive-brown. Wings dull black, the primaries with edgings and a patch at their bases white, the tertiaries with broad edgings of buff and walnut-brown, the innermost white edged, the wing coverts with buff or pale cinnamon edgings. Tail deeper black than the wings, the three outer rectrices with subterminal areas of white. Below, dull white, strongly washed with buff or pale yellow, cinnamon tinged on breast, flanks and crissum, and streaked on the throat and sides with dull black. Bill and feet pinkish buff, the former becoming slaty black, the latter dusky sepia-brown. Iris, sepia-brown becoming deep red during the winter.
Dwight (1900) further states that the first male winter plumage is —
acquired by a partial postjuvenal moult, beginning the middle of August, which involves the body plumage, the wing coverts, the tertiaries and the tail but not the primaries, their coverts, and the secondaries. Young and old become almost Indistinguishable except by the browner primary coverts of the young birds. Whole head, throat, breast, back, rump, wing coverts and tertiaries jet black; abdomen pure white, the sides and flanks rich chestnut, the crissum cinnamon. The upper tail coverts are usually edged with cinnamon and the back sometimes has obscure Vandyke-brown edgings. The tertiary endings are pale buff with walnut, those of the inner tertiary nearly white.
G. M. Sutton (1935) comments that Dwight of course refers to New York birds and that in other areas the onset of the post-juvenal molt is much earlier than August. Sutton presents records of the beginning of the molt in mid-July in specimens from Michigan and Georgia.
Dwight’s (1900) description of the molts continues:
First nuptial plumage acquired by wear which is marked by the end of the breeding season producing a ragged plumage, but the black areas do not fade perceptibly and the chestnut flanks fade but very little. The brown primary coverts are the distinguishing feature of young birds.
Adult winter plumage acquired by a complete postnuptial moult beginning early in August. Differs from first winter dress chiefly in the blacker wings, especially the primary coverts and deeper wing edgings. Old and young now become indistinguishable.
Adult nuptial plumage acquired by wear and differing from first nuptial by black instead of brown primary coverts. A few feathers may be assumed by moult on the chin and elsewhere, but they are insignificant in numbers.
In the female juvenal plumage olive-brown wings and tail replace the black ones of the male. The first winter plumage, acquired by a molt of similar extent to that of the male, differs in having the head, back, throat, and breast brown instead of black. The earliest record of the first molt I have seen is a female I took near Brunswick, Ga., June 24, 1949, that shows a few buff flank feathers. Adult and young females cannot be distinguished in this plumage. The first nuptial is acquired by wear and the adult winter by a complete postnuptial molt. Subsequent plumages do not differ, females never assuming the black areas of the male.
F. W. Davis writes me: “Certainly August is far too late for the onset of the postnuptial molt in Massachusetts. A breeding female banded June 4,1961, with a well-developed brood patch, was retaken July 4,1961, and had then molted all her upper tail coverts except the central pair; an adult male taken the same day had shed all his upper tail coverts.”
My own observations indicate that the sequence and method of acquisition (molt or wear) of plumage is the same for the four eastern subspecies. The variations in color with locale have been discussed at some length in an earlier study (Dickinson, 1952). These changes are generally characterized by a marked paling of the flank colors and a lessening of the amount of white at the bend of the wing and at the tips of the outer rectrices in southern latitudes.
Food: The towhee is principally a ground feeder, and this is reflected in its diet. W. L. McAtee (1926) comments on the food habits of this species as follows:
The food of the Chewink consists of a great variety of items, the bird taking apparently almost everything unearthed in its rummaging of the forest floor. About three-tenths of the food is animal matter and seven-tenths vegetable. Of the latter portion seeds, mast, and wild fruits are the important items. The mast consists chiefly of acorns; the favorite seeds are those of ragweed, foxtail grass, smartweed, and dock; and the fruits that are most frequently taken are those of strawberry, huckleberry, blueberry, bayberry, and blackberry. The towhee has very rarely been observed to feed on any agricultural product.
Beetles are eaten more frequently than any other insects and among them weevils are especially favored. Moths and caterpillars, bugs, and ants are other insect food items of importance. Besides insects numerous spiders and snails, smaller numbers of daddy-long-legs, millipeds, and sowbugs, and a very few small salamanders, lizards, and snakes are consumed. The insects eaten include various agricultural pests such as the potato beetle, plum curculin, strawberry crown girdler, flea beetles, cutworms, striped and spotted cucumber beetles, and the cornfield ant. Pests of trees which are known to be on the bill-of-fare of the chewink embrace nut weevils, bark beetles, adult.s of round-headed and flatheaded wood borers, leaf beetles including the locust leaf miner, and the variable leaf beetle (Typophorus canellus) which injures mountain ash and butternut among other trees, leaf chafers, junebugs, the goldsmith beetle, the yellow casebearer (Chiamys plicata) which feeds on the leaves of numerous deciduous trees, click beetles, scale insects, cicadas, tree hoppers, carpenter ants, sawflies and tent caterpillars ad a great variety of other caterpillars. The chewink is an exemplary woodland citizen and should receive our best protection.
In addition to this rather complete account, many unusual food items have been recorded. G. H. Breiding (1946) quotes A. L. Nelson (in litt.) as informing him of a single record of a towhee eating the drupes of moonseed (Menispermum canadense) in Maryland, which Breiding notes is claimed to be poisonous to humans. Holly berries were eaten by a towhee observed by G. A. Petrides (1942). E. H. Forbush (1929) states that Arthur T. Wayne says that when spring arrives in South Carolina, these birds go to the tallest trees and feed upon the buds. E. G. Hold (1918) noted towhees on mulberries in a small orchard in Alabama. F. H. King (1883) examined 17 specimens and found that “five had eaten small sees; one, wheat; one, oats; one, raspberries; one, seven moths; three, nine beetles; one, ants; one, a wasp; one, an ichneumon; two, three grasshoppers; two, two cockroaches; one, a walking stick (Spectrum femoratum), and four of its eggs; and one, a larve.” T. S. Roberts (1932) quotes Dr. G. H. Leudtke’s notes on the behavior of a towhee that remained at a feeding station at Fairmont, Mich., beyond the usual time for fall departure. This bird ate suet, oats, and flax during the period October 25 —November 1. H. C. Oberholser (1938) adds the boll weevil to the varied insect items included in the diet of this exceedingly beneficial species.
It should be noted that noted that no writer since L. J. P. Vieillot (1819) has reported “acorns” as being an item of diet for the towhee.
Frederic W. Davis (in litt.) adds the following notes from his observations in Amherst, Mass.:
“When feeding on the ground the towhee usually progresses by ‘kick’ foraging, scattering the ground debris with its feet to expose potential food as it goes. When insect larvae and other food are plentiful on top of the substrate, the birds resort to ‘visual’ or ‘peck’ foraging without scratching the debris aside. Occasionally towhees will attempt short ‘flycatchig’ sallies on the wing, either from the ground or from a perch. In the few instances of this I have seen, the intended prey was always a conspicuous and slow-moving insect, and the birds’ sallies were too awkwardly executed to be successful.
“In late May or early June the birds are often seen in highbush blueberry, Vaccinium corymbosum, eating the blossoms. Arboreal foraging predominates during the first week or two of June, and throughout the month the towhees frequent a variety of deciduous trees to glean larvae from the foliage. Fruits of the aromatic winter green, blueberries, and huckleberries are consumed not only by the adults, but are fed in quantity to the nestlings. One nestling about six days old was fed a wintergreen berry so large the young bird could not swallow it, and succeeded to spewing it about only after 45 minutes to trying. In addition to smooth larvae, the nestlings are also given hairy caterpillars such as those of the gypsy moth, which the adults first soften well by chewing. Adults also consumer large numbers of ant pupae, which they seem to prefer to the adult ants when they uncover an ant nest.”
Behavior: F. M. Chapman (1932) says: “There is a vigorousness about the towhee’s notes and actions which suggests both a bustling, energetic disposition and a good constitution.” He continues, “The dead leaves fly before his attack * * *.“ It is only when singing that the Towhee is fully at rest. Then a change comes over him; he is in love, and, mounting a low branch, he repeatedly utters his sweet bird s-i-n-n-g with convincing earnestness.” Such comments are typical expressions of almost all who have observed this attractive bird. T. E. Musselman (1923), in writing of trapping experiences with towhees in Georgia, adds some interesting notes to the recorded behavior patterns. A make bird “upon being seized * * * commenced singing and kept up his song until I released him.“ This unusual reaction occurred on each of 30 captures of this individual. Injury feigning has been recorded for the species by S. A. Grimes (1936) who states that he observed it “rarely.” Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway (1874b) note that “They are much attracted to their young, and when approached evince great anxiety, the female thrusting herself forward to divert attention by her outcries and her simulated lameness.” E. H. Forbush (1929) adds the following comments concerning the behavior of nesting pairs:
While the female is incubating, the male waits upon her and occasionally relieves her on the nest. As the nest is exceedingly well concealed, and the female dull colored, she can sit until almost trodden upon before she leaves the nest; when finally driven from it she is likely to act as if disabled, thus attempting to lure the intruder away. The young usually remain in the nest ten or twelve days, if not disturbed, until their wings grow strong, but if disturbed they may leave it before they are able to fly. When the young have learned to fly, the family keeps together for a time, but seldom, even in migration, is anything like a close flock formed, for Towhees are not normally gregarious. During and after the molt in August all are rather quiet, and shy. When severe frosts come most of them disappear in the night on their southward migration.
From his studies of the species in Massachusetts, F. W. Davis writes me:
“The towhee, when conspicuous, is very much so. It calls, sings, and forages with little or no attempt at concealment, and even flies short distances noisily in what I term the ‘flut flight,’ its wings making a thuttering sound audible at some distance. But when it wants to the bird can be most inconspicuous, remaining quietly out of sight in the underbrush or flying silently away well ahead of the intruder. The towhee’s sense of hearing is apparently very keen, for birds I have been watching have often taken alarm at another person’s approach long before I became aware of it.
“The species has a phenomenal ability to keep itself hidden from view. I have so often been unable to find or flush towhees I have watched fly into certain covers that I presumed they must have flown away unnoticed. In August, 1960, I saw a male bird fly into a dense but isolated patch of hardhack and sweetfern not more than 20 feet across. After trying my best to flush him for 30 minutes, I gave up in disgust and left. I had retreated only a short distance however, when a well-modulated twee from the copse announced he was still there.
“Then in June, 1962, another adult male flew into a dense cover of cinnamon fern and lit near me on the ground. He evidently saw me at once, for he froze motionless in a hunched-over crouch. He stayed still when I moved so long as I did not shorten the distance between us. Every time I tried to approach him, however, he scurried without a sound, still in his crouch, a few feet to one side or the other, always at right angles to my approach. Thus his tactics in evading me were displacement rather than flight.
“Reaction to disturbance at the nest varies considerably. Usually the brooding female remains on the nest until the intruder is within a few feet, sometimes until the vegetation over the nest is parted, and in a few cases until she is actually touched. She generally leaves the nest in a crouch and scuttles off silently for some distance under cover before she rises and returns to scold the intruder. During incubation she may desert the area temporarily, or she and her mate may twee apprehensively from the nearby cover. When the young are about five days old both the male and female become bolder, and will often dash to within 3 or 4 feet of the intruder, tweeing excitedly with wings and tail spread and crown raised, before retiring to continue scolding from the trees at a safer distance. The male often sings and scolds alternately. Several times in reaction to disturbances near but not at the nest, the parents led 7-day or older young away from it.
“While his mate was incubating in June, 1960, a male towhee discovered his reflection in the windows of a nearby house. From crack of dawn until dark he attacked his image with time out only to feed. He would flutter against a pane for a few seconds, take a few tentative but firm pecks at it, retreat, give a few drink-your-tea calls, and then return to drive off the interloper. Apparently his reflection in the glass was clear a few feet away, but disappeared closer by. When a mirror was substituted he remained at it for two hours at a stretch, feinting at his reflection, pecking at it, rising and striking the glass with beak and feet simultaneously. Then he would pause, sing a few times, and renew the attack. He continued this behavior even after the eggs hatched. On his way to feed the young with a beakful of larvae he usually tarried long enough to make a few sallies. Ultimately he fought with —and smeared —every window in the house.
“Towhees in captivity consume quantities of water and are avid bathers. Wild birds in suburban areas are frequent visitors to bird baths. In most of our study areas free surface water is scarce, even after heavy rains, because the heavy layer of humus absorbs it. After a very heavy dew the morning of June 17, 1961, I watched a male towhee fly into one cluster of red maple leaves after another and flutter among them. After becoming thoroughly drenched, he flew to a gray birch where he fluffed vigorously and then preened his plumage as it dried.”
Voice: The towhee is a vigorous songster. R. T. Moore (1913) uses him as the epitome when he comments that the song of the fox sparrow is “quite as strenuous as that of his cousin, the Chewink.” While many of its various vernacular names are of course phonetic interpretations of its call, the towhee has a considerable repertoire and it is interesting to note the many observations and interpretations various authors have recorded.
C. J. Maynard (1896) comments that “when disturbed, it constantly reiterates its name of ‘towhee’ given very decidedly with the accent on the last syllable. This note is oftentimes interpreted as being chewink * * * E. H. Forbush (1929) provides these descriptive terms: “towhee’, chewink’, joree’, wink rrrink; chuck, chuck; ‘whit-a whit-a-whit’ (H. D. Minot); song, ‘drink-‘your-tea’; dick’ you, fiddle fiddle fiddle, or better yet ‘chuck-burr, pill-a-‘will-a-will-a’ (E. T. Seton), most of the force expended on the chuck, the burr on a lower key, and the rest uttered rapidly; also a ‘quavering warble difficult of description’ (E. A. Samuels); an unusual song jung (low) dee-dee-dee-dee-dee (high) ees-ees (higher) y?-y?-y?-y?-y? (low) (F. H. Allen).”
H. A. Allard (1928) adds his observations of “strange winter singing” of a group of towbees which passed the winter near Chapel Hill, N.C:
a strange, squeaky song * * * interspersed with its familiar tur-ee-tur-ee. [I heard] a peculiar bird expression delivered for some seconds in a sweet conversational way, somewhat hushed in quality. * * * an almost indescribable songbabble or warble, the notes uttered in succession, with warbler-like variations. * * * interspersing his expressions with the familiar well known tur-ee-tur-ee-tur-ee, now uttered in an excited manner. [On March 2, 1904] * * * It was a happy courtship scene, in which brilliantly attired males were trying to win the approval of the female. Again I heard its new, mysteriously soft, affectionate expressions, almost a subdued whispering chant, warbler-like. * * * It is evidently his true love-song or murmur, remotely reminding one of the Bobolink’s sweetness at times, and delivered while in company with the females, and doubtless during the active courtship period * * *
T. S. Roberts (1932), after considering other authors’ attempts to describe the song of this species, states his preference thus: “* * * chipper-chee-e-e-e-e, the first two syllables sharp and clear, the latter part a trill of a slightly lower pitch.” A. W. Butler (1897) adds the interesting note that the “female does not sound the final k in chewink, which is distinctly given by the male.” To Roberts the song sounds something like “‘look-out, ter-r-r.’ The first syllable has a rising inflection; the second is slurred.” E. H. Eaton (1914) finds a distinction between the call notes “chewink” and “tow-hee” and comments that the former is often followed directly by the latter. C. R. Mason wrote to Mr. Bent in 1945 of his observation of what he assumed to be a single individual that frequented his place three successive summers. “Instead of the ‘Drink Your Tea’ song its notes are ‘Drink, Drink, Drink, Tsit, Tsit.’ The last two notes are inaudible fifty feet from the bird, but the ‘Drink’ notes are quite loud and ringing.” From an unpublished manuscript provided by A. A. Saunders, the following information has been extracted. “The song * * * is short and, in its commonest form, fairly simple. This form consists of two notes, usually on different pitches, followed by a short trill, or a series of rapid notes all on the same pitch. A still simpler form consists of one note and a trill. There are many other variations. The songs vary in length from one to two and three-fifths seconds, and in pitch from A5 to D7. The pitch interval varies from none at all to seven and a half tones, the average being three and two-fifths tones.
“The quality of Towhee songs is exceedingly variable. Some are quite musical, others decidedly rattle-like or buzzy. Some are partly musical and partly rattle. The musical part may be the first notes or the trill. One bird that lived on the grounds of the Allegany school for three summers was outstanding in its extremely fine first notes, musical and bell-like.
“In 36 years of records in southern Connecticut, the first spring song of the Towhee averages April 19, the earliest being Apr. 2, 1938, and the latest May 2,1924. The occasional birds that winter here may start singing in March. I have three dates of March singing, the earliest being Mar. 16, 1944, but I have not used them in working out the average first date for spring arrivals.
“Song ceases in August. In Allegany Park the last song heard averages August 5, the latest Aug. 13, 1937. In Connecticut the last song averages August 12, the latest Aug. 19, 1949. Revival of song in fall is rare; I have three October dates; Oct. 12, 1935, Oct. 8, 1939, and Oct. 3,1946.”
Val Nolan (MS.) reports his interesting observations on the song of a female Towhee: “At 0430 on Apr. 23, 1957, a cloudy morning with the temperature at 65°, I heard a loud and unfamiliar song, faintly reminiscent of the utterance of the male towhee. A female Towhee was perched 14 feet high in the top of a flowering dogwood in an old field; in 5 minutes she sang 15 times, then flew down and fell silent.
“Her song was made up of five and sometimes six notes, a long ‘dee’ followed by a series of rapid ‘da’ sounds on the same key. The quality was labored and unmusical, flat and somewhat squeaky.
“II heard her no more, although I passed the spot daily and in June spent two full days watching warbler nests nearby. A male towhee held territory there, but he was not in evidence within 15 minutes of the time when the female sang. A towhee nest with eggs was being incubated there in May.
“This is reminiscent in certain particulars of the singing of the female song sparrow mentioned by Mrs. Nice (1943), whose song ‘is confined to the period in early spring before nest building begins * * *; it is always given from an elevation: a large weed, a bush or even a tree, in contrast to the female’s usual behavior of staying close to the ground; it is short, simple, and entirely unmusical.’ And, like the female song sparrow’s performance, the female towhee’s apparently elicited no response from other birds of the same species.”
Field marks: The rufous-sided towhee is about the size of the catbird but much more robust. The male is black above and below from bill to breast, has chestnut sides, white belly, and conspicuous white patches on the tail. The tail is used vigorously, flicking, opening and closing almost constantly. The female has the black replaced by brown. Young birds of both sexes are markedly streaked on the breast and the flank colors are poorly developed. E. H. Forbush (1929) points out that a bird scratching noisily in dense brush is usually a towhee or a brown thrasher.
Enemies: Records of the towhee as a host for both internal and external parasites include the following: H. J. Van Cleave (1942), an acanthocephalan, Plagiorhynchus formosus Van Cleave; 0. W. Olsen (1939), a spiruroid nematode, Dispharynx pipilonis Olsen; H. E. Ewing (1929), the North American chigger, Trombicula irritans; C. M. Herman (1938), Haemaphysalis leporis-patustris. The species has been recorded as a food item of the Cooper’s hawk (F. N. and Frances Hammerstrom, 1951).
Herbert Friedmann (1929) states that the towhee is a very common victim of the cowbird, and continues:
At Ithaca, this species is uncommon and so extremely local that I have not had any experience with it as a molothrine host. This bird is called one of the commonest victims in New York by Eaton; in Connecticut by Sage; in Ohio by Jones; in Indiana by Evermann; in Iowa by Anderson, etc. The Towhee is one of the larger of the common victims of the Cowbird, and with none of its dupes is the latter more uniformly successful. Larger numbers of parasitic eggs have been reported from single nests of this species than from any other bird, and there is not one case on record of a Towhee covering up; or in any way trying to get rid of the strange eggs. The highest record is a nest containing eight eggs of the Cowbird together with five of the Towhee, a set taken in northern Iowa, and now in the collection of Mr. R. M. Barnes. Sanborn and Geolitz (Wilson Bull. XXVII no. 4, Dec. 1915, p. 444), record a nest of this species, May 14, 19i4, Lake County, Illinois, with one egg of its own and eight of the Cowbird. A similar set, one and eight of the parasite, is recorded in the Oologist XXXI, no. 6, June 15, 1914, p. 119. There are also instances of five, four and three eggs of the Cowbird in single nests.
About a hundred and eighty definite records have come to my notice, ranging from New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania, south to West Virginia, and west to Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Iowa.
Friedmann (1938) also adds the Nevada cowbird to the list of parasites of the species.
F. W. Davis writes me: “Cowbirds were common on all our study areas before, during, and after the towhee nesting period, but their incidence of parasitism seems comparatively low, Of 81 towhee nests found during the course of the study, only 4, or slightly less than 5 per cent, were victimized, each to the extent of 1 egg per nest. Our data are not adequate to show any effect of cowbird parasitism on the towhee’s nesting success.”
Banding records: Longevity records based on bandings indicate that 4: 6 years is not an uncommonly long life span for this species. M. T. Cooke (1950) notes an individual that was banded Mar. 21, 1937, and retrapped Dec. 16, 1944, and Mar. 3, 1946. This bird was at least 10 years old when released the last time. An outstanding record of movement is that of Marie V. Beals (1939) of a female banded Oct. 5, 1937, at Elmhurst, N. Y., and killed Apr. 29, 1938, at Crystal River, Fla.
Red-eyed Towhee (P. e. erythrophthalmus)
Range: Southern Manitoba, Great Lakes area, and northern New England south to southern Texas and the Gulf states.
Breeding range: The red-eyed towhee breeds from southern Manitoba (Treesbank, Winnipeg), northern Minnesota (Duluth), northern Wisconsin, northern Michigan (Isle Royale, McMillan), southern Ontario (Sault Ste. Marie, North Bay, Ottawa), northern New York, northern Vermont (Burlington, St. Johnsbury), central New Hampshire (Ossipee), and southwestern Maine (Norway, Christmas Cove) south to central northern and northeastern Oklahoma (Nash, Tulsa), northern Arkansas (Winslow, Ravenden), southern Tennessee (Raleigh), northeastern Georgia (Rabun County), northwestern South Carolina (Anderson and Cherokee counties), central North Carolina (Sampson County), and Virginia (except Princess Anne County).
Winter range: Winters from Nebraska (Lincoln), Iowa (Sioux City, Polk County), Wisconsin (Portage County), southern Michigan (Washtenaw County), southern Ontario (Essex County), Pennsylvania (Beaver, Harrisburg), southeastern New York (New York City), and Massachusetts (Pleasant Valley, Belmont) south to western Oklahoma (Woodward County), central southern and southeastern Texas (San Antonio, Brownsville, Galveston), the Gulf Coast, and south central Florida (Basinger).
Casual records: Casual north to northern Ontario (Fort Severn, James Bay), Quebec (Buckingham, Quebec City), New Brunswick (Irishtown, Fredericton), and Nova Scotia (Northport) and west to Colorado (Boulder).
Migration: The data apply to the species as a whole. Early dates of spring arrival are: West Virginia: Bluefleld, March 1. District of Columbia: March 30. Maryland: Baltimore County, March 8; Laurel, March 14 (median, March 25). Pennsylvania: Cambridge Springs, March 4. New Jersey: Cape May, March 8. New York: Prospect Park, March 23; Cayuga and Oneida Lake basins, March 30 (median of 21 years, April 16). Connecticut: Fairfield, April 2. Rhode Island: Charlestown, April 7. Massachusetts: Belmont, April 13. Vermont: Burlington, April 20. New Hampshire: New Hampton, April 17 (median of 21 years, May 2). Maine: Auburn, May 3. Quebec: Mt. Royal, April 21. New Brunswick: Irishtown, May 8. Missouri: St. Louis, March 1. Illinois: Chicago, March 12 (average of 16 years, March 29). Indiana: Wayne County, March 6. Ohio: Buckeye Lake, February 21 (median, March 8); Oberlin, March 6 (median of 19 years, March 17). Michigan: Battle Creek, March 13 (average of 44 years, April 2). Ontario: Ottawa, April 29. Iowa: Sioux City, April 11. Minnesota: Houston County, April 10 (average of 15 years for southern Minnesota, April 16). Kansas: northeastern Kansas, April 2. Nebraska: Falls City, March 14; Omaha, March 27; Red Cloud, April 5 (average of 21 years, April 24). South Dakota: Yankton, March 28. North Dakota: Cass County, May 4. Manitoba: Margaret, April 22; Treesbank, April 30 (average of 21 years, May 14). Saskatchewan: McLean, April 15. Idaho: Moscow, March 7. Montana: Libby, March 12 (median of 9 years, March 24). Oregon: Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, March 16.
Late dates of spring departure are: Florida: Leon County, April 29. Georgia: Athens, April 10. Maryland: Laurel, May 13. Louisiana: Baton Rouge, April 17. Mississippi: Gulfport, May 15. Arkansas: Hot Springs, April 18. Ohio: Buckeye Lake, median May 12.
Early dates of fall arrival are: Kansas: northeastern Kansas, September 10. Texas: Sinton, November 3. Mississippi: Saucier, October 28. Arkansas: Delight, October 8. Louisiana: Reef Light, October 23. Nova Scotia: Dighy County, September 27. Maryland: Ocean City, September 20. Cecil County and Tilghman Island, September 23. South Carolina: Charleston, September 28. Georgia: Hinesvile, October 10. Florida: Leon County, October 8.
Late dates of fall departure are: Saskatchewan: Muscow, September 30. Manitoba: Treesbank, October 6 (average of 12 years, September 18). North Dakota: Cass County, September 14. Nebraska: Scottsbluff, October 23. Minnesota: Minneapolis, November 15 (average of 10 years for southern Minnesota, October 14). Iowa: Sioux City, October 18. Ohio-Columbus, November28 (median for central Ohio, October 29). Indiana: Wayne County, November 8. Illinois: Chicago, November 6 (average of 16 years, October 24). Nova Scotia: Northport, October 27. New Brunswick: Salisbury, October 24. Quebec: St. Helen’s Island, November 4. Maine: Gardiner, November 21. New Hampshire: New Hampton, October 23 (median of 21 years, October 2). Vermont: Putney, October 20. Massachusetts: Belmont, November 12. Connecticut: Portland, November 11. New York: Cayuga and Oneida Lake basins, December 5 (median of 16 years, November 3). New Jersey: Island Beach, October 31. Pennsylvania: Beaver, November 16. Maryland: Baltimore County, November 24; Laurel, November 5 (median, October 30). District of Columbia: November 12. Virginia: Naruna, November 22.
Egg dates: Connecticut: 52 records, May 17 to June 25; 26 records, May 20 to June 7.
Illinois: 38 records, May 1 to August 11; 20 records, May 14 to June 3.
Maryland: 75 records, April 22 to August 28; 38 records, May 22 to June 14.
Massachusetts: 65 records, May 13 to July 9; 35 records, May 21 to June 10.
Michigan: 27 records, April 28 to July 22; 15 records, May 16 to May 31.
New York: May 8 to June 25 (number of records not stated).
Rhode Island: 21 records, May 15 to June 26; 14 records, May 27 to June 9.
Tennessee: 2 records, May 8 and May 26.
Riley’s Towhee (P. e. rileyi)
Range: Low country of South Atlantic states from southeastern Virginia to northern Florida.
Breeding range: Riley’s towhee breeds, and is largely resident, from southeastern Alabama (Houston County), central Georgia (Crisp, Jones, and McDuffie counties), coastal South Carolina (Dorchester and Horry counties), coastal North Carolina (Carteret County), and extreme southeastern Virginia (Pungo, apparently not typical) south to central northern Florida (Walton, Wakulla, and Madison counties) and southeastern Georgia (Camden County).
Winter range: Winters from near the northern limit of the breeding range south to western Florida (Escambia County) and mid-peninsular Florida (Charlotte and Brevard counties).
Egg dates: Georgia: 52 records, April 19 to July 7; 26 records, May 19 to June 19.
South Carolina: 18 records, April 5 to July 16; 10 records, May 3 to May 24.
White-eyed Towhee (P. e. alleni)
Range: The white-eyed towhee is resident in Florida from Franklin, Columbia, and Duval counties south to southern Dade County.
Casual record: Casual in Florida Keys (Key West).
Egg dates: Florida: 8 records, April 15 to June 20.
Alabama Towhee (P. e. canaster)
Range: Tennessee and western North Carolina to Louisiana and northwestern Florida.
Breeding range: The Alabama towhee breeds, and is largely resident, from northeastern Louisiana (West Carroll Parish), northwestern Mississippi (Rosedale, intermediate toward P. e. erythrqpht1wi~lmus), extreme southwestern Tennessee (Germantown, Wayne County), northern Alabama (Cobert, Limestone, and Calhoun counties), northern Georgia (Chattooga and Jackson counties), central South Carolina (northeast to York and Sumter counties), and western North Carolina (Murphy, Rocky Bald) south to central southern Louisiana (Iberia Parish), east along the Gulf coast to northwestern Florida (Okaloosa County), and to central eastern Alabama (Russell County) and north central Georgia (Putnam and Taliaferro counties).
Winter range: Winters in breeding range, and south to north central northern Florida (Wakulla and Leon counties), southeastern Georgia (Toombs County), and coastal South Carolina (north to Georgetown County).
Egg dates: Alabama: 85 records, April 6 to July 24. Georgia: 2 records, May 19 and June 11.