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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Although rare at backyard bird feeders, the Eastern Towhee is common in Ky.


Eastern Towhee (Photo by Brian Kushner, Audubon Society)

Editor’s Note: This is the tenth article in an occasional series about backyard birds.

The Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) is an infrequent visitor to backyard bird feeders.

Consider yourself lucky to see this large sparrow, with distinctive plumage, feeding on the ground beneath one of your hanging feeders during the late winter or early spring. Towhees observed this time of year are likely migrants passing through, on the way northward, back to their breeding grounds.

Kate Slankard, an avian biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) said the Eastern Towhee is common statewide, but not a yard bird. “They live at the wood’s edge, in shrubby areas. You have to go looking for them.”

Eastern Towhee (Photo by Lisa Hurt, Audubon Society)

Geographic Range and Distribution in Kentucky

For decades this species was known to biologists and bird watchers as the Rufous-sided Towhee, but in 1995 there was a name change, as explained in a posting on the Audubon Society website.

“The study of birds, like any science, remains a work in progress. New (DNA) findings or other (characteristic features) bring changes in the classification of species, which often result in new names.

The Rufous-sided Towhee was found across North America (but) differences between its western and eastern forms — in plumage, songs and genetics — brought an official split into two distinct species: the Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus) in the West, the Eastern Towhee in the East.”

The geographic range of the Eastern Towhee extends from east Texas, north to Minnesota, east to southern Maine, and down the Atlantic Coast to Florida.

Its breeding range includes the Great Lakes states, and as far south as West Virginia and Missouri. Its wintering range is in southern Texas and Louisiana.

The Eastern Towhee is found year-round in Kentucky and throughout most of the southeastern U.S. In Kentucky, this species is as widely distributed as any of the state’s resident birds, most abundant in forests with shrubby understory. Some birds move around seasonally, in-state.

There are four subspecies throughout its range and the first description in the scientific literature was made by Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus in 1758.

Spotted Towhee (Photo by Virginia Short, Audubon Society)

Size and Coloration

The Eastern Towhee is a large sparrow. Its total length ranges from seven to nine inches, with a wingspan of eight to 12 inches. Its bodyweight averages about 1 1/2 ounces.

Adults have dark brown to black heads, rufous (reddish-brown) sides, a white belly, and a long dark tail with white edges. Their eyes are red.

The Eastern Towhee’s call sounds like “Drink your teeeee.”

Habitat

In Kentucky, its preferred habitat is semi-open and forested areas, with dense cover of weeds, tangles of grapevines, blackberry thickets, or shrubs. This includes brushy forest edges, regenerating clear-cuts, reclaimed strip mines, overgrown fencerows and abandoned fields.

In the mountain counties, the Eastern Towhee thrives in mixed pine and hardwood forests, with a dense understory of blueberries or mountain laurel.

Food Habits

The Eastern Towhee forages on the ground most of the time, noisily scratching in the leaf-litter, but sometimes in shrubs or on tree limbs close to the ground.


Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

Its diet varies with the season and region, but is mostly insects, seeds (including small acorns), berries and small fruits.

In summer the Eastern Towhee eats mostly insects, including beetles, caterpillars, moths, bugs and ants, but it may also consume spiders, snails, millipedes and rarely small animals — salamanders, lizards, or snakes.

Reproduction and Nesting

The male defends its nesting territory by singing, often from a high perch. In courtship, he may give a soft “whispered” version of his song, may chase his female, or rapidly spread his tail feathers as a display.

The Eastern Towhee nests on the ground, usually under a shrub, or in low bushes usually less than five feet above the ground.

The nest is built by the female and is an open cup of grass, twigs, weeds, rootlets, and strips of bark, lined with finer materials like feathers, thin grasses, moss or sometimes animal hair.

In Kentucky, territorial singing begins in March, and clutches usually appear in early April. A second brood may appear in late May, or during the summer, as late as early August.

On average the female lays three to four creamy-white to very pale gray eggs, with spots of brown often concentrated at the larger end of the egg.

Incubation is about 12 to 13 days.

Both parents feed the nestlings, and the young leave the nest about 10 to 12 days after hatching, but usually remain with parents for some time before going out on their own.

Keep an eye out for this large sparrow that could be mistaken for a robin at a distance if it weren’t for its white breast. The Eastern Towhee is a bird of the wood’s edge that only infrequently visits backyards along the suburban/rural interface.


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