A number of bird’s names are derived from their vocalizations. The list includes chickadee, phoebe, pewee, killdeer, and whip-poor-will. Add the Eastern Towhee to this list as its name brings to mind the loud, abrupt contact note these birds use to communicate.
Towhees are conspicuously vocal but visually discreet. While on a quiet walk through the woods, listen for the rustling of dry leaves in the forest understory. You may have discovered an Eastern Towhee scratching with both feet at once, clearing fallen litter, as it searches for seeds and insects. Startle the bird, and it may call out a warning to its partner in a loud, “TOWHEE!” Listen to a male singing on territory and you will hear the bold song characterized as: “Drink Your TEA-E-E-E-E-E!” But because towhees spend so much time foraging on the ground and hidden within brush, the best place to see them is when they venture out to a ground feeder in your yard. But the feeder will need to be proximate to safe, nearby cover in order to succeed.
You will know when you have succeeded as the Eastern Towhee is a boldly patterned beauty! Males have a black head, back, wings, and tail. The belly is white with the sides and flanks “robin” red. White patches are visible on the folded wings. Females are similarly patterned but a softer, brown color where the male shows black. The classic conical bill is black. The birds have a long tail which shows white margins when in flight.
Eastern Towhees are found in forest understory, particularly around the edges of woodlots throughout the eastern United States. Northern populations tend to migrate into the southeast in winter months while southern groups are year round residents. Mild winters may keep them at your feeders throughout the cold season. Western states are home to a close relative, the Spotted Towhee. Where the populations meet in the Midwest, they comingle and create hybrid offspring.
Towhees are omnivores. They consume seeds, fruits, beetles, caterpillars, crickets, ants, bees, and wasps. The diet of over-wintering towhees is limited to seeds. In all seasons, if a safe source of seed is available with cover available nearby, they will come to backyard feeding stations. You can observe them foraging with other ground-feeding species under various feeders, or you can set up a platform feeder filled with a mixture such as Aspen Song® Value Blend. This mixture contains white proso millet, red milo, cracked corn, and black oil sunflower, each ingredient a healthy and appealing choice for this appealing, though secretive songbird.
Greenlaw, Jon S. 1996. Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.