Formerly called the rufous-sided towhee (a much more descriptive name), this large (81/2 inches long) sparrow is boldly patterned and spends nearly all its time on the ground scratching among the leaf litter, looking for food. Clean, flashy colors have given the towhee the nickname “Hollywood robin.”
In flight, the bird’s white wing and tail spots are noticeable. Female eastern towhees replace the male’s black plumage areas with chocolate brown. Towhees’ preference for thick cover and brushy habitat make them harder to see than other common species. The loud scratching of a foraging towhee sounds like a large animal walking through dry leaves; this is often your first clue to a towhee’s presence.
One of the easiest bird songs to learn and remember, the Eastern Towee sings drink your teeeaa! Or simply drink teeeaa! Call is a similar-sounding chew-ink! They also use a buzzy, rising tzeeeee! as a flight call and alarm call. Spotted: song is sweet-sweet teeeeaaa! But it’s less musical than Eastern’s song.
Widespread across the eastern half of the United States and southern Canada, towhees in the northern part of the range are migratory, but those in the southern half are resident (non-migratory). During mild winters, towhees may linger until harsh weather forces them to migrate or to seek the cover of wooded valleys and hollows. Brushy woodland thickets and edge habitats are preferred, but towhees are also found in older woodlands and suburban backyards.
Towhees eat just about anything found on the woodland floor, including insects, seeds, fruits, and even snails, spiders, and millipedes. They prefer to scratch the ground under feeding stations for mixed seeds, cracked corn, and sunflower seeds (which they crack with their powerful bill).
Towhees nest on or near the ground in a well-concealed spot. The female weaves a cup-shaped nest out of rootlets, bark strips, and grass. She also handles all the incubation duty, which typically lasts about 12 days. Normal clutch size is three to four eggs; young towhees fledge in about 10 days. Both towhee parents feed the youngsters, which allows the female to start a second—and sometimes a third—brood.