Original description: Fringilla erythrophthalma Linnaeus 1758
Taxonomic history in AOU/AOS Check-list
AOU 1 (1886): Towhee, Pipilo erythophthalmus; White-eyed Towhee, Pipilo erythophthalmus alleni
AOU 2 (1895): Towhee, Pipilo erythophthalmus; White-eyed Towhee, Pipilo erythophthalmus alleni
AOU 3 (1910): Towhee, Pipilo erythophthalmus erythophthalmus; White-eyed Towhee, Pipilo erythophthalmus alleni
AOU 4 (1931): Red-eyed Towhee, Pipilo erythophthalmus erythophthalmus; Alabama Towhee, Pipilo erythophthalmus canaster; White-eyed Towhee, Pipilo erythophthalmus alleni
AOU 5 (1957): Rufous-sided Towhee, Pipilo erythophthalmus erythophthalmus, Pipilo erythophthalmus rileyi, Pipilo erythophthalmus alleni, Pipilo erythophthalmus canaster
AOU 6 (1983): Rufous-sided Towhee, Pipilo erythophthalmus [erythophthalmus group]
AOU 7 (1998): Eastern Towhee, Pipilo erythophthalmus
IUCN Conservation Status: Of least concern
“Successional time is against towhees.” Extensive agriculture as practiced in eastern North American in the nineteenth century, with its brushy pastures, overgrown ditches, and regularly culled woodlots, probably created nearly as much Eastern Towhee habitat as it destroyed. The decline of agriculture in the east in the early and mid-twentieth century was even more felicitous from the sparrow’s point of view as fields grew back into tangled thickets and scrubby young forests. Over the decades to come, however, the same natural process of succession saw those same inviting habitats transformed into tall mature forest.
In much of the Eastern Towhee’s breeding range, reforestation has coincided over the last half century with urban and suburban development, creating a landscape unsuitable for thicket-loving birds; the agriculture that persists is increasingly intensive, leaving little space for the wildlife that once occupied the less-kempt corners of small farms.
Like many terrestrial woodland birds, towhees have also been affected by the explosion in white-tailed deer populations; the deer browse the undergrowth the towhees need for nesting, leaving behind tidy forest floors that are not only of little use to ground-nesters but serve as open alleys for free-ranging housecats and other perils.
As a result, the Eastern Towhee is now listed as a species of special concern in Maine and Vermont, while the decline in New York’s breeding population over the past four decades has been “dramatic.” The number of Eastern Towhees nesting in Pennsylvania is estimated to be only half that recorded in the 1960s, a circumstance most likely reflecting “declines from unnaturally high population levels during the middle decades of the twentieth century, when mid-stage forest succession was at its peak…. The Eastern Towhee remains one of the state’s most numerous forest birds, and its currently stable population is likely to be maintained by timbering operations, which ensure a constant supply of suitable mid-stage shrubby habitat in forested regions.”
Behavior: Eastern Towhees are shy, shade-loving sparrows, slipping thrasher-like into cover when disturbed. Over much of the year, they are rarely seen more than a few feet above the ground in dense brush, but males sing from the tops of slender trees in April and May, and birds of all age and sex classes occasionally glean insects—or even flycatch clumsily—from the outer twigs of flowering trees.
Most foraging, though, is done on the ground, the bird kicking and scratching with abandon through dense leaf litter beneath low-hanging branches. In migration and winter, individuals or small, loosely associated groups of Eastern Towhees readily visit seed piles for millet and other small seeds. Even when seed is plainly visible on bare ground or concrete, they scatter it with frantic scratching before eating.
Like other towhees, this species is rarely seen in sustained, long-distance flight. Birds flushed in the open flop into cover on stiff wings, the tail flirted and pumped. Males in territorial disputes engage in “quiver flight,” “when one bird chases and opponent by following but not overtaking it. Flight is level, tail fanned, tempo of wing-beats rapid.”
Voice: Most towhees are first detected by ear. The sound of a tiny chain gang hard at work in the leaf litter often resolves into the vigorous double-scratching of an Eastern Towhee, throwing its feet forward and then scraping abruptly back with all its might. This species does not generally vocalize when it is actively feeding, but individuals may pause to give a long, soft, slightly scratchy dsee, said to be a contact note used within family groups or wintertime flocks. This call is usually much less heavily modulated than the buzzier dzrr given by most Spotted Towhees. Alarmed birds give a sharp, almost cardinal-like tipk, running into a series that accelerates with increasing excitement.
The most familiar call—source of such vernacular names as “towhee,” “touit,” “chewink,” “joree,” and “chúwhweeo”—varies over this species’ wide range. In the northern, nominate subspecies, this call is usually metallic and clearly two-syllabled, with a low-pitched, lingering introduction that slurs slowly upward into an explosive conclusion. The corresponding note given along the central Gulf of Mexico coast is “somewhat hoarser, more nasal.” Florida’s alleni has a markedly different analogue, sweetly whistled and evenly upslurred over its entire length, calling to mind an outsized American Goldfinch.
The famous “drink your tea” song of male (and rarely of female) Eastern Towhees is more variable than any of the call notes within and among populations. It is normally two-parted, the introduction (“drink your”) made up of two to four more or less discrete notes. Many northern birds start with a loud, ringing note similar to the beginning of the “towhee” or “chewink” call, which they follow with a lower-pitched, slightly gulping click; the introductory series can be simpler and more uniform in the song of alleni. These notes are followed by a tremolo (“tea”) of varying speed and tone, occasionally repeated. In some birds, this concluding phrase is musical and liquid, in others hurried and rattling. The tremolo is usually the highest-pitched portion of the song in northern birds, but in some individuals, perhaps especially of southern populations, it barely differs from the introductory notes, thus rather resembling some Spotted Towhee songs.
An infrequently heard “complex quiet song” is described by Greenlaw as “muted … highly variable, disjointed muttering without any apparent temporal or syntactic pattern,” incorporating calls, trills, and other notes and phrases; given from the ground or a low perch; this vocalization, apparently given only by males, can continue for up to twenty minutes.
Detailed description and measurements drawn from standard reference works
Adult Pipilo erythrophthalmus erythrophthalmus male: Tail feathers black, with broad white edges to outermost pair and inner webs of three outer pairs with large white spots; fourth pair with smaller or no white spot at tip. Upper tail coverts, rump, back, and nape black. Primaries, secondaries, and tertials black (in first-cycle birds, most duller black or blackish-brown). Base of five to seven primaries, beginning with primary eight, white on outer web, forming square patch on folded wing and jagged stripe in flight; primaries eight to six or five with long white streak on outer web, sometimes reaching basal white patches. Tertials with broad white stripe on outer web, longest on innermost tertial. Wing coverts black.
Under tail coverts and vent yellowish cinnamon. Belly and lower breast white centrally, bordered by broad reddish cinnamon flanks and breast sides; breast sides may show faint fine black streaks. Upper breast, throat, neck, and head black.
Iris dark red. Thick, pointed bill black, slightly paler below in winter. Tarsus and toes dark brownish pink.
Adult Pipilo erythrophthalmus erythrophthalmus female: Chocolate brown replacing male’s black; throat and upper breast often slightly paler, with cinnamon tinge.
Juvenile Pipilo erythrophthalmus erythrophthalmus: Tail feathers brown-black (more blackish in male), with broad white edges to outermost pair and inner webs of three outer pairs with large white spots; fourth pair with smaller or, usually, no white spot at tip. Upper tail coverts, rump, and back dull yellowish brown with smudgy, irregular blackish or sooty streaking. Primaries, secondaries, and tertials dull brown (more blackish in male). Base of five to seven primaries, beginning with primary eight, white on outer web, forming square patch on folded wing and jagged stripe in flight; primaries eight to six or five with long white streak on outer web, sometimes reaching basal white patches. Tertials with broad buffy or whitish stripe on outer web, longest on innermost tertial. Wing coverts with buffy or whitish edges and tips, on greater coverts creating poorly defined “dotted” wing bar.
Under tail coverts and vent dull buffy yellow. Belly and lower breast dull white centrally, bordered by broad buffy flanks and breast sides; breast sides with sparse diffuse streaking. Upper breast darker buffy with variably dense, coarse wedge-shaped or triangular dusky streaks. Throat pale buff, generally unstreaked; separated from pale buff jaw stripe by blackish lateral throat stripe, usually incomplete and sometimes lacking.
Iris muddy brown, becoming red over course of first winter.
In both sexes, the preformative molt is variable in extent; some individuals replace all tail feathers and tertials, producing a more adult-like aspect, but they can be aged in the hand, and in good views in the field, by the contrast between the worn primary coverts retained from the juvenile plumage and the darker, fresher newly molted greater coverts.
Some puzzling adults show a mixture of brownish, female-like flight feathers and blacker, male-like flight feathers; these are probably older, “masculinized” females.
Length 172-206 mm (6.8-8.1 inches)
Wing chord 76-94 mm (3.0-3.7 inches)
Tail 81-99 mm (3.2-3.9 inches)
Mass 40-52 g