Each year Wake Audubon chooses a bird on which to focus. The species is always one that is found in Wake County and a bird that is under pressure from climate change, development and/or loss of habitat. We learn about the species through articles in our newsletter, lectures, and field trips.
The Eastern Towhee is Wake Audubon’s Bird of the Year. The scientific name for this bird is Pipilo eryrhrophthalmus, Taxonomically, birds in the genus Pipilo are members of the sparrow family and the species name means red eye. Eastern Towhee’s do usually have red eyes, although this is sometimes hard to see. In addition, there is a population of white-eyed Eastern Towhees that occurs from the southeastern part of North Carolina to Florida. The Eastern Towhee and the Spotted Towhee (found in the western U.S.) used to be considered the same species and were called Rufous-sided Towhees, a good descriptive name. Both males and females have rufous sides, red eyes (usually), and white breasts, but the males have black backs and heads and the females have brown backs and heads. Towhees are about 2/3 the size of robins and at first glance may be mistaken for them, but towhees usually keep their tails cocked, looking perky. Eastern Towhees have a distinctive song, “Drink your tea” with the last part ending in a trill. Sometimes they just sing part of the song. Their call sounds like they are saying their name, “tow-hee”. Males and females often call to each other as they hop around and scratch in the undergrowth.
The Eastern Towhee range is all of the eastern US and some of southeastern Canada. They are year-round residents of all of North Carolina except the highest elevations of the mountains. They are found along forest edges, shrubby fields and in yards under shrubs with lots of leaf litter. They can be heard scratching around in the underbrush as they hunt for small insects, spiders, grubs and seeds. They nest on the ground or low in tangles of vines and shrubs. The female builds the nest and lays from 2 to 5 eggs that are a “dirty” white with reddish-brown specks. The eggs take almost 2 weeks to hatch. The babies grow rapidly and usually leave the nest after 7 days, although they are unable to fly until about day 10. In North Carolina, Eastern Towhees typically raise two or three broods a year, starting in late April.
The Eastern Towhee population is still robust, although numbers declined by 48% between 1966 and 2015 according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Thus, we have reason to be concerned and need to do all that we can to provide for these handsome-looking birds.
How can we help the Eastern Towhee Prosper?
Knowing something about their feeding and nesting habits, it is easy to see how we can help these birds survive and prosper. Since they nest on or low to the ground, they are vulnerable to many predators, including outdoor cats. Keeping our own cats indoors and talking to neighbors about doing the same is one way we can help. Feral cats are a big problem and shelters should be encouraged for cats that can’t be adopted. We can provide suitable habitat for these birds if we have a yard by keeping leaves under shrubs and trees and letting a portion of our yards remain a little messy looking. We can advocate for parks to keep some leafy understory areas for towhees and other birds with similar needs.