Eastern Towhee

Pipilo erythrophthalmus

Eastern Towhee

Shawn Taylor / Flickr / CC by 2.0

A large, chunky sparrow, the eastern towhee was once lumped together with its western counterpart, the western towhee, as a single species, the rufous-sided towhee. While these two birds, both of which are members of the Passerellidae bird family, do share many characteristics, their different ranges and plumage markings highlight the distinctiveness of each bird. Learning more key facts about the eastern towhee can help birders appreciate just how unique this bird is.

Fast Facts

  • Scientific Name: Pipilo erythrophthalmus
  • Common Name: Eastern Towhee, Ground Robin, Rufous-Sided Towhee
  • Lifespan: 9-12 years
  • Size: 7-8 inches
  • Weight: 1.1-1.9 ounces
  • Wingspan: 10-11 inches
  • Conservation Status: Least concern

Eastern Towhee Identification

The general passerine shape, black conical bill, long tail, stocky build, and deep chest help identify the eastern towhee as a type of large sparrow, but it can still be a confusing bird if you haven't seen it before. Understanding the key field marks of the species is essential so you do not confuse it with different thrushes, thrashers, or other similar birds.

Male eastern towhees have a solid black hood that covers the head, back, and breast, descending down the chest in a U- or V-shape. A white patch shows at the base of the primary feathers on the black wings, and some minor buff or whitish edging may also be visible on the primary feathers. The black tail has white corners that flash obviously in flight. The flanks are boldly rust-colored, and the belly is white. The undertail coverts are buff or faintly rust.

Females have similar markings, but are a warm cinnamon-brown where males are black, and they show less white on the wings. For both genders, the eyes are red, though southeastern birds have paler eyes and Florida populations may have white eyes. The legs and feet are pale.
Juveniles are heavily streaked brown and buff, particularly on the underparts and back, and their bill is paler.

These birds have a clear whistling song with a warbling trill at the end. The 1-2 second song is often described with the "drink-your-tea" mnemonic. A softer, quick tu-heee call is also common, and has a slight pitch rise at the end of the call.

Eastern Towhees vs. Spotted Towhees

While the eastern towhee and spotted towhee were once lumped as the same species, they do look distinctly different. Eastern towhees are more solidly colored, whereas spotted towhees have multiple white spots on their mantle and wings. Eastern towhees are also very slightly smaller than their spotted cousins, though it can be very difficult to judge size. The biggest difference between the two birds, however, is their range, and spotted towhees are a western species while eastern towhees are only widespread in the eastern United States, though there is some very slight overlap in the two birds' winter ranges in central Texas.

Eastern Towhee Habitat and Distribution

These chunky birds prefer sheltered, secluded habitats such as brushy thickets, forest edges, and shrubby riparian zones, and they may be found in either deciduous or mixed deciduous and coniferous regions up to 6,500 feet in elevation. Eastern towhees are year-round residents in the southeastern United States, from Florida to as far north and west as eastern Massachusetts, southeastern Pennsylvania, southern Ohio, southern Iowa, and eastern Kansas.

Migration Pattern

During the summer breeding season, eastern towhees spread further north to southern Ottawa and throughout Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota to southern Manitoba and eastern Nebraska. In winter, the southern range of the eastern towhee spreads slightly west to the eastern portions of Texas and Oklahoma.

Vagrant sightings are occasionally recorded somewhat further west of this bird's expected range, as well as much further north into Newfoundland. Very rare sightings have been noted in Great Britain.

Behavior

These are relatively solitary, secretive birds that prefer to stay concealed in brush, though males may choose exposed perches for singing, particularly in spring when they are claiming territories and attracting mates. During the spring and summer, eastern towhees may stay in pairs while feeding, but males can be aggressive toward other males and may use a variety of threat displays to demonstrate their strength. When active, they often hold their tails elevated.

Diet and Feeding

Eastern towhees are omnivorous birds that take advantage of a wide range of food sources. Insects and caterpillars make up a good deal of their diet, along with grain, seeds, plant buds, fruit, and nuts. Some eastern towhees will even eat amphibians, particularly in marshy habitats where prey is abundant and easy to catch.

While foraging, these birds use a backwards double-footed hop to clear away leaves or other debris and expose seeds and insects.

Nesting

These are monogamous birds that mate after the male attracts a female by showing off his tail corners, though he may chase her away at first before gradually accepting her presence. The female builds a cup-shaped nest using sticks, grass, rootlets, and bits of bark, lining the inner cup with finer materials. The nest may be built on the ground or in a low shrub, typically no higher than five feet above the ground, though some higher nests have been recorded.

Eggs and Young

The oval-shaped eggs are pale, creamy white, or grayish and are speckled with brown, red-brown, or gray markings that may be concentrated more on the larger end of the shell. There are 2-6 eggs per brood, and the female incubates the eggs for 12-13 days. After the altricial young hatch, both parents feed the chicks for 10-12 days. A mated pair may raise 1-3 broods each year, with multiple broods more common in the southernmost parts of the eastern towhee's range.

These birds are frequent hosts to brown-headed cowbird eggs, and where their range overlaps with the spotted towhee in the Great Plains, hybridization is relatively common.

Eastern Towhee Conservation

While these birds are not considered threatened or endangered, their populations are declining, particularly in the northeastern part of their range. Continued land development that leads to habitat loss is believed to be a factor in this decline, and overuse of pesticides that removes the eastern towhee's food sources is also an issue. Reversing these trends can help the bird's population recover and their range may expand again.

Tips for Backyard Birders

While these birds are secretive, they will come to bird-friendly backyards that provide suitable shelter with shrubs, grasses, and brush piles, particularly if thicket-like plantings include berry bushes that will serve as both food and shelter simultaneously. Eastern towhees may visit ground feeding areas or large, low platform feeders if cracked corn, milo, millet, oats, or peanut hearts are offered. Ground bird baths can also help attract eastern towhees, and these birds will readily forage in leaf litter.

How to Find This Bird

The eastern towhee is common in its range, but because it prefers to hide in dense thickets, it can be challenging to see. Birders should visit brushy habitats in spring to catch a glimpse of males perched in more open areas as they sing, providing opportunities for great sightings. These birds are also likely to come to established feeding areas at nature centers or wildlife preserves where ground bird baths are provided in sheltered areas.

Explore More Species in This Family

The Passerellidae bird family includes more than 140 species of New World sparrows, brush-finches, juncos, and towhees. Some of the closest relatives to the eastern towhee, as well as birds that might be confused for this shy bird, include:

See our other wild bird profiles and fact sheets for more information about all your favorite bird species!