Mary Beierle, who lives in Elizabethton, Tennessee, sent me an email to share information about recent nesting activity by a pair of Eastern towhees at her home in the Stoney Creek community.
“Just wanted to tell you that we have a nesting pair of Eastern towhees here in Stoney Creek,” Mary wrote in her email. “This is the first year they have stayed after a brief visit in early spring.”
While not as many people may be familiar with Eastern towhees as, say, northern cardinals or ruby-throated hummingbirds, those who have made an acquaintance with these unusual songbirds are, like Mary, captivated instantly.
“I am very fond of these birds,” she noted in her email. “The male is really beautiful and the female is also lovely, although not as colorful as the male.”
Eastern towhees spend much of their time on the ground and hidden in thickets and hedges. As a result, other common names for this bird includes “ground robin” and “swamp robin,” which refer to some of this bird’s habitat preferences. They’re not thrushes, however, and are unrelated to thrush family members such as American robin, Eastern bluebird and wood thrush. Instead, towhees are one of the larger members of the sparrow family.
Mary noted some of this bird’s typical behavior from her observations. “I love the way they hop around,” she wrote. “They are very skittish, and I can’t get them to stand still for a photo.”
At my own home, I have a pair of Eastern towhees currently occupied with nesting. When I get too close, both parents claim an elevated perch and call in agitation as long as I am in the vicinity. The towhees are just one of many nesting birds so far this spring. Other nesting birds in my yard or the surrounding woodlands this spring have included tree swallow, Eastern bluebird, brown thrasher, song sparrow, American robin and Eastern phoebe.
The Eastern towhee represents a bit of a milestone in my personal birding history. I saw and identified my first Eastern towhee in early spring in 1993. At that time, I was struggling to identify some of the common visitors at my feeders. I was acquainted with white-breasted nuthatches, blue jays, downy woodpeckers, Carolina wrens, dark-eyed juncos and a handful of other birds. When I looked out a window and saw this bird feeding on the ground, the morning sun illuminating his dramatic plumage of black, white and rufous red, I was immediately aware this visitor represented something new and unexpected.
Consulting a field guide — I was using the Golden Nature Guide to the Most Familiar American Birds at the time — I soon found a painted illustration of a rufous-sided towhee that matched in every detail the bird I had just observed on the ground beneath a blue spruce in my yard.
Many of the older field guides still list the Eastern towhee as “rufous-sided towhee” which is actually more descriptive of the bird’s appearance than the word “eastern.” In 1995, ornithologists renamed the rufous-sided towhee to Eastern towhee and also separated the Eastern species from its western counterpart, the spotted towhee. Until that point, these two towhees had been considered different races of the same species. In 2003, I saw a spotted towhee during a visit to Salt Lake City, Utah. The bird looks almost identical to an Eastern towhee except for considerable white spotting — hence its common name — on the bird’s back.
Male and female Eastern towhees each possess a stately if subtle beauty. Males have a black hood. The black coloration extends into the back and tail. The belly is white and the sides are flanked with a rusty-red color. In flight, their black tails are bordered with white feathers, which produces a dramatic flash of contrasting colors. The female Eastern towhee is an attractive bird in her own right. She shares the rufous sides and white coloration that are present in the male’s plumage. However, the male’s black feathers are replaced by a warm, chocolate brown plumage in the female. In addition, their bright red eyes help set these birds apart from other songbirds.
The Eastern towhee is one of my favorite yard birds, but not just because of its dramatic appearance. These birds also have some instantly recognizable vocalizations. With the arrival of spring, the males will seek elevated perches for extensive singing bouts to attract mates and establish territories. Their song has been interpreted, quite accurately, as an emphatically delivered “Drink your tea!” They also have some alarm notes, such as “Chew-ink” and “Toe-Hee,” which provides the basis for this bird’s common name.
They are often found in the same sort of tangled habitat favored by Northern cardinals, gray catbirds and brown thrashers. To attract these birds, simply refrain from doing too much to alter your landscape. For instance, don’t manicure every square inch of your yard. Leave some wild corners that will run rampant and provide a luxurious tangle for birds that thrive under cover. In the southern United States, towhees prosper in scrub palmetto habitats. In our region, any hedge or bramble thicket will provide adequate cover to make these birds feel welcome.
While they may never completely lose their wariness, towhees will become gradually more accepting of sharing a yard with people. It helps that they will readily visit feeders for sunflower seeds. If you succeed in attracting a family of Eastern towhees to your yard and garden, I am confident you’ll not be disappointed.