Photo Credit: Bill Horn
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Pipilo erythrophthalmus
OTHER NAMES: Chewink, Swamp Robin, Bullfinch, Red-eyed Towhee, Ground Robin, Jo-ree, Brush-bird, Turkey Sparrow, Rufous-Sided Towhee
DESCRIPTION: A large sparrow shaped bird, seven to eight inches in length with a wing- span of 10-13 inches and weighing one to two ounces. The adult male has a black head, throat, upper chest, and back. The wings are mostly black with white patches and white edging. The tail is also black with conspicuous white patches at the tips of the outside tail feathers. Most of the breast and the entire abdomen is white. The sides and beneath the tail area are rufous giving rise to the birds former name the Rufous-Sided Towhee. The beak is black and the eyes are red except in the Florida panhandle where they are yellowish-white. The scientific name means red eyed chipper. The Florida panhandle Eastern Towhee merits a subspecies classification Pipilo erythrophthalmus alleni. The adult female is colored similar to the adult male but has shades of brown where the male is black. Immature Eastern Towhees are marked in the general pattern of the adults but with more brown or gray than black. Also they have streaked upper breasts with the remaining under parts a dull white.
DISTRIBUTION: The Eastern Towhee breeds as far north as southeastern Canada south to the Gulf of Mexico and west across to the edge of the Great Plains. It winters in the southern three fourths of the breeding range and in the southwestern states.
HABITAT: Eastern Towhees are found in brush habitat consisting of overgrown fencerows, shrubbery in rural areas, forests with dense undergrowth, abandoned overgrown fields or the brushy transition zone where a forest meets an opening.
FEEDING HABITS: The Eastern Towhee when encountered is usually heard scratching in the leaves under dense brush. For such a small bird they are exceptionally noisy as they scratch in leaf litter searching for food in a manner similar to a farm chicken. This technique is especially effective in the winter when a large proportion of its food is located on the ground. During the summer months they forage on fruits and berries such as wild strawberries, blackberries, black cherries, elderberries, blueberries and grapes. The Eastern Towhee benefits humans by consuming adults and/or larva of beetles, ants, moths, grasshoppers, crickets, flies, spiders, snails and earthworms. Other foods include seeds of grass, ragweed, smartweed, small acorns, and other tree seeds.
LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY: Breeding for Eastern Towhee occurs from mid-April to late-May in the northern portion of the range and extends to mid-August in the southern states. The male Towhee will establish a territory of 1-2 acres (0.4-0.8ha.). He will begin singing his mating song that resembles “Drink Your Tea.” His singing will eventually attract a female and they will become a monogamous pair for the season. After pairing the male stops singing “Drink Your Tea” and begins communicating with calls resembling “Chewink, Jo-ree,” or “towhee.” The male brings nest-building materials to the female Towhee and she assembles the nest by herself in the thick brushy habitat either on the ground at the base of a tree or near the ground in a tangle of vines or limbs. The nest is the typical cup structure observed during winter when foliage is absent if it is built above ground. When on the ground the nest is a depression scratched into the soil. The hen will lay two to six eggs. They are pale pinkish with brown specks. The hen alone incubates the eggs. The nest is in such thick cover the hen must walk to it. The male contributes by bringing his mate food and defending the territory. The eggs require incubation for 12-13 days. Once the eggs hatch the hen feeds the newly hatched a diet of insects while they are still on the nest. The young birds fledge and are ready to leave the nest 10-12 days after hatching. After the young depart the nest both parents feed the young while training them to forage for food on their own. The family unit remains together until fall. The Eastern Towhee normally raises two broods per year and sometimes three in the south.
Habitat for the Eastern Towhee and all wildlife is declining not only due to the general loss of natural areas due to urbanization, but because even rural landscapes tend to be more neatly manicured in modern society. People want things to look “nice” so they “clean up” ultimately degrading wildlife habitat without realizing it.
Greenlaw, JonS. 1996. Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erytgriohthalmus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca:Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/262
Pearson, T. Gilbert, Editor, 1936 Birds of America, Doubleday and Company, Garden City, New York. P. 58.
United States Geological Survey an online site accessed 4/2/2009 at
AUTHOR: Steve Bryant, Certified Wildlife Biologist, Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries