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Eastern Towhee

(Pipilo erythrophthalmus)
Banded 21 July, 1999 - Newport, Indiana

General Information

The Eastern Towhee is one of the six species of Towhees found in North America. The Eastern Towhee and its western cousin the Spotted Towhee were formerly considered one species. This "ground robin" occurs year round across the eastern half of the USA, and extends its range northward during the breeding season, into Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, New York, New England and extreme southern Canada. 

A secretive bird of brushy edges and open woodlands, it is more often heard than seen. Its loud call note sounds like "chewink," but it's distinctive song clearly commands you to, "Drink your teeee!!!"

 

The male Eastern Towhee is from 7 to 8.75 inches long, with a wingspan of from 10 to 12.5 inches. Weights ranging from 1 to 1.75 ounces. The male does not molt into its rich black and white plumage until its second year. The eyes are red, but a race of Eastern Towhees with white eyes occurs in Florida. 

Adult Male Eastern Towhee
Figure 1 - Adult Male Eastern Towhee

 

Rufous Flank of the Eastern Towhee
Figure 2 - Rufous Flank of the Eastern Towhee 

 

The rufous flank, often hidden by its wing, gave this bird its name Rufous-sided Towhee.

The Eastern Towhee somewhat resembles a robin, but it is smaller and slimmer, with a distinctive black head, throat and breast, and a white underside. Also note the finch-like beak. 

Adult Male Eastern Towhee
Figure 3 - Adult Male Eastern Towhee

 

Adult Male Eastern Towhee
Figure 4 - Adult Male Eastern Towhee 

 

Adult males have a long black tail. Females and juveniles (not shown) have brownish upperparts and tail. Towhees will come to backyards for suet, oats, flax and seed placed on the ground.

The upper wing of the towhee is also black.

Upper Wing of Eastern Towhee
Figure 5 - Upper Wing of Eastern Towhee

 

Tail of Eastern Towhee
Figure 6 - Tail of Eastern Towhee

The long tail of the Eastern Towhee has white on the outer tail feathers.

Nesting Behavior

The Eastern Towhee prefers to nest under a bush or brush pile, but will also locate a nest in a cluster of vines or in a bush. The nest, built by the female, is of twigs, leaves, and bark and is lined with animal hair. From 2 to 6 eggs, incubated by the female, hatch in 12 to 13 days. The nestlings, cared for by both fledge in 10 to 12 days.

Banding Recoveries

The Bird Banding Lab web site reports that between 1955 and 1998, 120,062 Eastern Towhees were banded. Of these, 3,697 have been recovered, a recovery rate of 3.07%.

Banding studies show that some Eastern Towhees are short distance migrants, but are resident over much of eastern North America. They can live more than 12 years in the wild, but most live only about 4 to 6 years.

If you should recover a banded bird, please report the band number to the Bird Banding Lab by calling 1-800-327-BAND.

Conservation Status and Economic Importance

Towhees provide an important service by consuming large quantities of moths, caterpillars, ants, scale insects, wood borers, beetles, snails, sow bugs and other destructive pests. Their animal diet also includes millipedes, small salamanders, lizards, and snakes. 

Towhees feed on many berries, and by doing so, propagate the seeds of many useful plants including blueberries, bayberries, strawberries, mulberries, and holly berries.

Eastern Towhee populations appear to be declining. Frequent Cowbird parasitism no doubt accounts for some of this decline. Declines may also be due to the tremendous loss of woodland and edge habitats to commercial development of land.

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