Eastern Towhee

Well hidden but always heard

By Susan Campbell

“Drink your tea, drink your tea,” the loud, emphatic call comes from dense shrubbery right outside our door. It is the voice of a common, but frequently overlooked, Eastern towhee. It is hard to imagine that such a persistent songster could keep so well hidden. But towhees’ larger size makes them a great target for predators, so keeping hidden is the survival strategy they employ. They belong to the sparrow family, given that they are short-billed birds found in brushy or grassy habitat.

The bird’s name originates from its typical “tow-hee” call. The towhee was first described by some of the earliest Europeans to arrive in the New World. The artist-cartographer John White noticed them during his visit to the English colony on Roanoke Island (1685-86). It was this trip that documented the colony’s disappearance (the Lost Colony). White’s unpublished drawings of both males and females predated the famous work by Catesby of the birds of Colonial America from the late 1700s by more than 100 years.

Many backyard birdwatchers here along the coast are rather confused when they finally catch their first glimpse of a towhee. Is it some kind of oriole? Perhaps it is a young rose-breasted grosbeak? Males are quite colorful with rufous or chestnut flanks set against a white belly with a black hood, black back and wings, as well as a long black and white tail. The bill, too, is jet black. Females sport brown feathers instead but still have rufous sides. Their legs are long and powerful: good for kicking around debris in search of insects and seeds. Their eyes are typically red, but in our area they may be pale. Birds with yellowy to white irises actually belong to a separate subspecies found in parts of the Southeast. Furthermore, intermediate individuals with orange eyes do occur in our area.

Eastern towhees are found, as their name implies, throughout the eastern United States. Here in the Southeast, they are year-round residents, although we do have some wintering individuals that breed farther north. Their diet is variable, consisting of a variety of invertebrates (insects, spiders, millipedes) during the breeding season. However, in the colder months, towhees can also be found scratching for seeds dropped by other birds from feeders. Their heavy bill allows them to take advantage of a variety of seeds. The powerful jaw muscles associated with such a strong bill make it a formidable weapon. If attacked, a towhee can inflict quite a bite. Males will viciously attack each other during territorial disputes and may inflict mortal wounds grabbing the body or head of an opponent. Conflict is not infrequent where food is abundant, so the potential for fights is frequent throughout the year in our area.

It is not uncommon for Eastern towhees to raise three broods in a summer. Each brood involves three to five young. Nests are simple affairs, in short shrubbery or even directly on the ground. As a result, nestlings often do not remain in the nest long after their eyes open and downy feathers cover their bodies. They will move around noisily begging from the adults. Young towhees will instinctively run for cover if their parents sound the alarm.

Susan would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos at susan@ncaves.com.

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