Beak of the Week – Eastern Towhee

Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus)

Family: Passerellidae

By Jon Piasecki, Houston Audubon Conservation Technician

Eastern Towhees are a species of sparrow typically found throughout the eastern half of the United States. Their physical appearance is much different from many other “new world sparrows” that you may know. Adult males have a black head and back, with a white belly and orange-brown sides. Females and immatures have a brown head and back but have the same white belly and orange-brown sides as the adult males do. They breed throughout the northeastern and Great Lakes states and can winter as far south as the Gulf Coast of Texas. Some populations of Eastern Towhee are present in the southeastern U.S. year-round, and it is thought that these birds may not migrate.

Eastern Towhees are often seen and heard rummaging around in scrubby habitat. They prefer the edges of forests and overgrown fields where there is ample cover in the form of shrubs and thickets. The foraging behavior of towhees includes hopping along the ground, scratching at leaf litter hoping to stir up or uncover food items. Eastern Towhees will eat a variety of things such as spiders, centipedes, snails, seeds and even fruits such as blackberries.

During the breeding season, a female will enter a male’s territory and initially be chased off by the male. As time goes on, the male becomes less aggressive and becomes attentive to the female, following her around. Eastern Towhees typically nest on the ground but may also build nests in shrubs or tangles. The female builds the entire nest using bark, leaves, twigs, and occasionally fur. Female towhees lay between 2-6 eggs that take up to 2 weeks to hatch. Eastern Towhees may have up to 3 broods per year in some areas. While this species is very abundant, it is estimated that since 1966 Eastern Towhees have seen an overall decline of around 53% due to changes and loss of habitat.

Eastern Towhees have been seen this winter around the Houston area. Next time you are walking in a wooded or thick-brushy area and hear rustling in the leaf litter, be sure to take a quick look for flashes of orange and black!

 Visit our Bird Gallery to read about other Texas birds! 

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