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All About the Eastern Towhee


Dear Bird Folks,

We have discovered a rufous-sided towhee in our yard. I have become totally fascinated by this bird. Could you please tell me anything unique about the rufous-sided towhee?

– Todd, Sandwich


Well, Todd,

The first thing you should know is there is no such bird as a rufous-sided towhee. Sorry I had to be the one to tell you, but it is better that it came from me than hearing it from a stranger on the street. The rufous-sided towhee has gone the same way as the marsh hawk, the myrtle warbler and the radar range. They all still exist, but most people now call them by different names. The marsh hawk is now called the northern harrier, the myrtle warbler now goes by the embarrassing name of yellow-rumped warbler and the radar range is now called the radar finch.

In the case of your rufous-sided towhee, it is now called the Eastern towhee. Why do they keep changing bird names, you ask? So we all have to buy new bird books, of course. Plus there is a group of bird gurus who apparently have way too much time on their hands. Every few years these geniuses get together and start causing trouble in the bird world. Remember the oriole fiasco a while back? In the span of a few years, the Baltimore oriole’s name was changed to the Northern oriole and then back to the Baltimore oriole. Now it’s the towhees turn to be messed with.

The rufous-sided towhee range covered almost the entire lower 48 states. The birds in the east are a bit different than the birds in the west, so it was decided that they should be split into two species and given two different names. The western birds are now called spotted towhees. Where the two species overlap, they often interbreed and the offspring are called Eastern-rufous-spotted-sided-radar towhees.

Eastern towhees are a very common Cape bird. They can be found almost everywhere from our backyards to our back woods. Anyone with a naturally landscaped yard is likely to have a towhee. However, anyone with a silly lawn and trimmed shrubbery will probably not have the pleasure of seeing this bird. Towhees are often seen under feeders where they have the odd habit of scratching and kicking with both feet at the same time, like some kind of spazzed-out chicken. Towhees are usualy heard before they are seen, as they constantly give their loud “chewink” call. Towhees also have a very diagnostic song that sounds like “drink your tea-ee-ee-ee.” The “drink your tea” song reportedly made the towhee the favorite bird of early British settlers.

Although the towhee is basically a well-marked sparrow, many people think it is some kind of weird robin, because of its dark back and orange sides. One of the oddest things about towhees are their eyes. Towhees have bright red eyes that give them the look of the devil after a frat party.

Our population of towhees has been declining in recent years. They are often victimized by parasitic cowbirds and uncontrolled pets have taken a toll on this low nesting, ground-feeding bird. However, the biggest reason for its decline is the maturing of our woodlands. Towhees benefitted as the land and trees recovered from past years of clear cutting. They have thrived in areas of regrowth, but as our forests slowly become more mature, their population has dropped off.

I’m with you, Todd, no matter what the name, towhees are real enjoyable birds. Hopefully they will be with us for a very long time. And when you think about it, Eastern towhee isn’t that bad of a name. It certainly is a lot better than radar towhee.