Eastern Towhee

Pipilo erythrophthalmus

  • Version: 2.0 — Published April 2, 2015
  • Jon S. Greenlaw

Free Introduction Article Access

The Introduction Article is just the first of 11 articles in each species account that provide life history information for the species. The remaining articles provide detailed information regarding distribution, migration, habitat, diet, sounds, behavior, breeding, current population status and conservation. Each species account also includes a multimedia section that displays the latest photos, audio selections and videos from Macaulay Library’s extensive galleries. Written and continually updated by acknowledged experts on each species, Birds of North America accounts include a comprehensive bibliography of published research on the species.

A subscription is needed to access the remaining account articles and multimedia content.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Sign In
Figure 1. Distribution of the Eastern Towhee.
Adult male Eastern Towhee (dark-eyed form), Dutch Harbor, Barnstable Co., MA, 9 June.

A boldly patterned sparrow not easily confused with any other species. Male Eastern Towhees are strongly patterned, with black hood, dorsum, wings, and tail; hood edge on breast sharply demarcated from contrasting white belly; sides and flanks orange brown. The following is a link to this contributor's image via the Birdshare Flickr pool: Ryan Schain (see complete eBird checklist).

This boldly patterned sparrow is perhaps best known for the call that is the source of its English name (towhee) and early vernacular names (chewink, joree). Yet few people know that its discovery by Europeans was documented during a significant and tragic episode in early American history. In 1585–1586, painter-cartographer John White portrayed both sexes of the Eastern Towhee during a visit to the aborted settlement on Roanoke Island, North Carolina. Copies of the drawings appeared in an incomplete, unpublished manuscript (about 1614) by Edward Topsell (Harrison n.d., Christy 1933), more than a century before Catesby illustrated this species in his celebrated work (see Feduccia 1985).

Despite its popularity and wide occurrence across eastern North America, many details of the Eastern Towhee's natural history remain poorly known. Its songs and singing behavior have received significant attention. Because the bird spends much of its time near or on the ground in dense habitats and scrubby growth, however, it is usually difficult to study. Northern populations are migratory; southern populations are resident. Apart from its sexual dichromatism and its unstreaked adult plumage, it closely resembles its sparrow relatives in broad details of behavior. Socially, it is monogamous and territorial. Females build nests and incubate eggs; both sexes provide parental care and mob predators around the nest.

Like most of its emberizine relatives, the Eastern Towhee uses a distinctive 2-footed scratching behavior to displace loose litter on the ground and uncover hidden arthropod prey. This behavior is especially important in winter, when nearly all of its food comes from the ground. During the breeding season it spends much time seeking insects and fruit in woody vegetation above ground as well. Details of its display language are only now becoming available. This towhee has an array of calls and visual displays that organize its daily social routines. One vocalization in particular used by adult males during the breeding season has characteristics of softness, variability, and prolonged delivery that resemble later stages of song development.

This species deserves additional study. Apart from providing an excellent model for addressing behavioral problems, the Eastern Towhee and its relatives offer interesting phylogenetic puzzles that merit attention.

Recommended Citation

Greenlaw, J. S. (2015). Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bna.262