The familiar drink-your-tea song of the Eastern Towhee is one of the first birdsongs that a beginning birdwatcher learns. This rather secretive bird can often be located by the noise it makes while foraging in dead leaves. It will also sometimes announce itself by calling tow-ee from the thick shrubbery where it spends much of its time. Fortunately, it will also forage on suburban lawns near shrubs and under birdfeeders. The Eastern Towhee is a year round resident in Tennessee, and is joined in winter by more northerly breeding individuals. The breeding range extends across the eastern United States from southern Canada to southern Florida and the Gulf Coast. In winter, it occupies the southeastern portion of the breeding range and into south Texas.
Description: The male and female Eastern Towhee look different. The male has a black hood and upperparts and the female is rich brown where the male is black. Both are white below, rusty (rufous) sides, have a white patch on the wing, and a long tail with conspicuous white spots on the outer corners of the feathers. The eyes are red (white in Florida birds). Juvenile birds (May-August) are overall brown with heavy streaking.
Weight: 1.4 oz
Voice: The song is a short, three-note drink-your-tea-ee-ee, ending in a higher pitched trill. The call is a sharp, loud che-wink or tow-whee.
- There is no other similarly pattern bird found in Tennessee.
Habitat: Eastern Towhees are found in a variety of shrubby habitats including old fields, forest edges, and residential areas. Males occasionally sing from high perches, but generally they stay low in brush.
Diet: Seeds, fruits, spiders, insects, and other invertebrates.
Nesting and reproduction: Towhees have a long breeding season in Tennessee, lasting from late March through August, and will usually produce two broods in a season. Eastern Towhees are monogamous, and males display for their mate by flashing the white spots on his wings and tail.
Clutch Size: 2 to 6 eggs, with 3 to 5 eggs most common.
Incubation: The female incubates the eggs for 12 to 13 days.
Fledging: The nestlings are tended by both parents and leave the nest in 10 to 12 days. The female starts the second clutch 8 to 12 days after the young from the first nest have fledged.
Nest: The nest, built by the female, is usually concealed on the ground (early nests) or in low shrubs (later nests). It is built of twigs, leaves, and bark, and is lined with fine grasses and rootlets. More Tennessee nests have been reported in red cedar trees than any other tree or shrub species.
Status in Tennessee: The Eastern Towhee is a common permanent resident across the state. Migrants from more northerly populations join Tennessee's residents during the winter. The Tennessee towhee population is declining, as it is elsewhere in its range. The decline is thought to be a result of natural forest succession, "cleaner" farming techniques and urban development. Eastern Towhees are frequent hosts to Brown-headed Cowbirds.
Dynamic map of Eastern Towhee eBird observations in Tennessee
- Eastern Towhee was known as the Rufous-sided Towhee until 1995 when genetic studies determined that is was a separate species from the Spotted Towhee of the western United States.
- Eastern Towhees have increased locally in the Smoky Mountains at higher elevations with the recent death of mature fir trees from the balsam woolly adelgid infestation. This insect was introduced from Europe around 1900 and is considered a serious pest.
- Painter-cartographer John White made the first written description of the Eastern Towhee in 1582 on a visit to the failed settlement on Roanoke Island, North Carolina.
- Eastern Towhee's have red eyes across the majority of their range, but in Florida and extreme southern Georgia they have white eyes. In the region between south Alabama to southeast North Carolina eye-color is variable. This region of intergradation is an indication that these two populations have only recently come together. During the Pleistocene era, Florida was an island and now that sea levels are lower, these two populations are again contacted.
- The oldest known Eastern Towhee in the wild was 9 years, 10 months old.
Obsolete English Names: towhee bunting, rufous-sided towhee
Best places to see in Tennessee: overgrown fields and forest edges statewide.
For more information:
Greenlaw, J. S. 1996. Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus), The Birds of North America (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.Nicholson, C. P. 1997. Atlas of Breeding Birds of Tennessee. Univ. Tennessee Press, Knoxville.
Sibley, D. A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. A. A. Knopf, New York, NY.
Consider using the online bird checklist program at eBird to help us understand bird populations and distributions in Tennessee. Click here to see how.