Eastern Towhee (
) is an uncommon to rare migrant and winter resident in the eastern third of Texas. They can be found regularly through the Blackland Prairie region. They are rare west through the Rolling Plains to the eastern Panhandle and South Plains and very rare in the eastern Edwards Plateau and northeastern South Texas Brush Country. The only documented breeding record for Texas was found in Harrison County in July 1914. Eastern Towhees breed in the eastern U.S. and are present year round in the southern portion of this region. More northerly birds migrate south during the winter and these migrants are the ones that winter in Texas. Eastern Towhees are characteristic birds of forest edges, overgrown fields and woodlands, and scrubby backyards or thickets. The most important habitat qualities seem to be dense shrub cover with plenty of leaf litter for the towhees to scratch around in a kind of backwards hop. Towhees occur in the Appalachians to about 6,500 feet, but favor warm and dry south-facing slopes more than cool, moist northern faces. Towhees eat many foods: seeds, fruits, insects, spiders, millipedes, centipedes, and snails, as well as soft leaf and flower buds in spring. They also eat seeds and fruits, including ragweeds, smartweeds, grasses, acorns, blackberries, blueberries, wheat, corn, and oats.
Eastern Towhee is a member of the Passerellidae Family that consists of 130 species only found in the New World. Eastern Towhee is a striking looking bird that is predominantly black, rufous, and white. It has a black hood, back, and upper breast with a striking red eye. The flanks are rufous while the underbelly is white. The wing has a white patch at the base of the primaries. The tail is black with white edges and is longer than a sparrow’s tail. The female is essentially identical except for the black is replaced with a warm brown head and upper-parts. They are about 8.5 inches long with an 10.5 inch wingspan. Their typical weight is about 1.4 ounces. They are quite will known for their song which sounds like “jink denk te-e-e-e-e-e-“ or “drink your teeee” while the common call note is a “chewink”.
The Eastern Towhee was considered the same species as the Spotted Towhee until 1995. Where both species meet in the Great Plains, hybrids do occur.
It has red eyes across most of its range, but the towhees in Florida and Southern Georgia have straw colored eyes. Eye color is variable from southern Alabama to southeastern North Carolina. This pattern may reflect the fact that the pale-eyed form, which was isolated when Florida was an island during the Peistocene era, is now coming back in contact with the red-eyed form of the mainland.
The name “Towhee” , an imitation of this bird’s call note, was given in 1731 by the naturalist and bird artist Mark Catesby, who encountered it in the Carolinas.
A group of towhees are collectively known as a “tangle” and a “teapot” of towhees.
Eastern Towhees are common victims of the parasitic Brown-headed Cowbird. Female cowbirds lay eggs in towhee nests, then leave the birds to raise their cowbird young. In some areas cowbirds lay eggs in more than half of all towhee nests. Towhees, unlike some other birds, show no ability to recognize or remove the imposter’s eggs. Female cowbirds typically take out a towhee egg when laying their own, making the swap still harder to notice.
Eastern Towhees tend to be pretty solitary, and they use a number of threat displays to tell other towhees they’re not welcome. You may see contentious males lift, spread, or droop one or both wings, fan their tails, or flick their tails to show off the white spots at the corners. Studies have shown that male towhees tend to defend territories many times larger than needed simply to provide food.
The oldest known Eastern Towhee was a male in South Carolina, and at least 12 years, 3 months old.