chapter from the electronic book:
Life Histories of Familiar North American
Pipilo erythrophthalmus [Rufous-sided
Contributed by Joshua C. Dickinson, Jr.
[Published in 1968:
Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 237
(Part 1): 562-579]
Mark Catesby (1731) in his description of the
"towhee-bird," commented ". . .It is a solitary
Bird; and one seldom sees them but in Pairs. They breed and abide
all the Year in Carolina in the shadiest Woods." Vieillot, in
redescribing Catesby's "towhee-bird" as "Le
Touit Noir" in 1819, added the following to the already
growing store of information (translated from the French):
This species is numerous in the center of the United States
where it remains through the summer and from where it migrates in
Autumn to spend Winter in the South of the States. The Towhees,
because of their short wings, cannot fly at much altitude or stay
in the air for a long time; so they travel only by fluttering from
hedge to hedge, from bush to bush, and they are never seen at the
top of tall trees. They hunt on the ground for the different seeds
they feed on, pushing the leaves and weeds that hide those seeds
aside with their bill and feet; they seemed to me to be quite fond
of small acorns [petits glands], eating usually only those that
are fallen; they live in pairs through summer, gathering in
families during September and large flocks toward the end of
October, which is the time of their migration voyage which they
accomplish in company with sparrows and blue and red
fallow-finches. Those birds like to stay in summer in the
thickness of thickets and at the edge of woods. Then we can see
the male on the top of a medium height tree where he sings for
hours at a time; his song is made of only a single short and often
repeated musical phrase, but it seemed to me sonorous and pleasant
enough to make me regret that the bird would stop as soon as there
were young ones. The female makes her nest on the ground, in the
weeds or under a thick bush, gives it a thick and specious shape;
she makes it out of leaves, vines, and bark strips outside and
lines it inside with fine weed stems. Her laying consists of five
eggs of a pale flesh color with freckles more abundant at the
*** Authors vary widely in their choice of terms describing the
preferred habitat of the rufous-sided towhee. Some areas noted are
hedgerows, thickets, brushy hillsides, and "slashings"
(E. H. Eaton, 1914); woodlands and swamps (E. E. Murphy, 1937);
dry uplands near edges of woods or high tracts covered with low
brushwood (Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway, 1874b); brushy pastures (C.
J. Maynard, 1896); and "thickets of willows, cottonwoods, and
young sycamores, where wild sunflowers, horse-weeds and poke grow
rampant, the whole woven together by the interlacing of wild
cucumber vines" (A. W. Butler, 1898). Forbush (1929) says
"He is a ground bird--an inhabitant of bushy land. No other
sparrow in New England seems to be so wedded to life in thicket
and tangle. . . . He spends most of his life in thicket, 'scrub'
or sprout land, and so the bushy lands of Martha's Vineyard and
Cape Cod are favorite resorts. He is not a dooryard bird except in
winter, when necessity now and then drives one to a feeding
station, but even then he spends most of his time in the
shrubbery, coming out only to secure food. He may be found along
bushy fences and roadsides, and often finds food or sand in
country roads." B. H. Warren (1890) states that they
occasionally "visit potato vines and other plants on which
the destructive Colorado potato-beetle feeds." ***
Courtship.--Few comments have
been made on the species' courtship behavior. J. J. Murray writes
of his observations on Elliott's Knob, Augusta County, and
Lexington, Va.: "Late in the afternoon I heard a towhee call
and then saw him fly to the top of a bush. He then spread his tail
into a fan with the white spots showing distinctly, raised his
wings, and fluffed out his feathers until in the fog he looked
twice his natural size. Almost at once a female appeared in a
nearby bush. At another time, in my yard at Lexington, on October
22nd, I saw a male, all alone, go through what was similar to a
courtship display. Restlessly flying from branch to branch and
from bush to bush, with fluttering wings and tail, he paused at
times to sing a 'whisper song.' It was not the usual song, but a
broken warble, low and husky and full of squeaks."
W. E. C. Todd (1940) writes of this activity in Pennsylvania:
"When the females appear, the wooing begins with a lively
chase through the thickets. The white-marked wings and tails flash
impressively as they are rapidly spread and folded in the
Frederic W. Davis writes me from Amherst, Mass., that "The
males arrive first in late April, followed by the females a few
days later. Adult and first-year males arrive together and seem
about equally represented throughout the breeding season. For the
first few days after their arrival the males are often found in
small groups of four to eight birds.
"Females being pursued in full flight by two courting
males are a common sight up through mid-May. The male whisper song
is as prominent a part of courtship as the male-female chase.
Another common courtship phenomenon is the male carrying nesting
material such as dead leaves to the vicinity of the female, who
then manipulates it. This behavior is particularly noticeable
during pairing before the first nesting, less so before the
second. In precopulatory display the female holds her back
horizontal, raises her bill and tail, and utters a rapid
Nesting.--F. W. Davis continues in
his letter: "Site search and nest-building are carried on
entirely by the female, who gathers all nesting materials within
60 feet of the site she chooses. Although building one nest
covered a 5-day span, the female devoted only a few hours each day
to placing the materials. The day after she finished the nest she
visited it but once and remained only about 2 1/2 minutes. She
came once the following day with a long piece of sedge and
remained almost a half hour, but did nothing to the nest. She
deposited the first egg the morning of the third day after nest
"Incubation may start with the
second egg of the clutch, or be delayed until the last egg is
laid. Incubation takes 12 to 13 days. Two nests per season seem to
be normal; the same mates are retained and the second nests are
within the original territories. The laying of the first egg of
the second clutch in four cases observed ranged from 8 to 21 days
after the fledging of the first brood. A banded pair whose first
brood was destroyed 7 days after hatching laid the first egg in a
second and new nest 9 days later."
J. S. Y. Hoyt (1948) describes a nest found June 6, 1942, in a
heavily wooded area near Ithaca, N.Y. It was built not more than
three feet from the ground between two stems of a white pine and
contained three young birds about 5 days old and one unhatched
A. A. Saunders (1923) reports a nest found in New York on July
6 in a "silky dogwood" and another on July 13, also in a
bush, that contained four eggs. M. B. Trautman (1940) writes of
finding nine nests. Of the nine, one contained six eggs, three
contained four eggs or young, three contained five eggs or young,
one contained four young and one cowbird young, and one contained
six young and one cowbird egg. He continues:
The nest was made of grasses, rootlets, twiglets, bits of
leaves, string, or shreds of bark; a few nests were lined with
cattle hair. Four nests were built upon the ground beneath brush
tangles, 2 were built in piles of dead brush over which a dense
leafy tangle had grown, and the remaining 3 were 1 to 5 feet above
the ground in vine tangles or upon small branches of bushes. The
earliest nest with eggs was recorded April 30 (1929, 4 eggs), and
the latest July 12 (1931, 5 eggs); the earliest nest with young
was found May 11 (1929, 4 one-third grown young in same nest as of
April 30), and the latest July 17 (1932, 4 young); the first
fledging out of the nest was seen May 20 (1931), and the last
August 4 (1930, at least 2 young being fed by parents).
Dayton Stoner (1932), writing of his experiences in New York,
states that all nests he observed were located on the ground, but
that on occasion a low bush served as a support or hiding place.
He adds that the nests are made of "Dead leaves, grass and
strips of bark. . .with a lining of fine grass." He records
both 4 and 5 eggs per nest. In Ohio, G. M. Allen (1909) discovered
nests in the "higher, more open woods, as well as in the
brushy tangles." Merriam (1877), quoting the notes of the
Stadtmuller brothers, describes a nest found under a cedar tree as
being "composed externally of cedar bark, lined with grass
and horse hair."
B. H. Warran, writing in 1890, adds "a grass tuft" to
the type of site that may be chosen. W. B. Barrows (1912) comments
that in Michigan the towhee almost invariably nests on the ground.
He adds that "Possibly one nest in fifty is built in a bush
or tangle of vines a foot or two above the ground." Also
reported in Barrows are records by Wolcott of a single nest at
Grand Rapids 8 feet above the ground in a tree and another at Ann
Arbor placed on top of a stump. Barrows also states that two
broods are reared almost always, one in June and another in July.
Minnesota records from T. S. Roberts (1932) include a single nest
found by Dr. Patton in a matted grape vine 11 feet 4 inches from
the ground. L. H. Porter (1908), in writing of the nesting habits
of birds at Stamford, Conn., following the cold spring of 1907,
suggests that his finding of towhee nests in trees might have been
the result of the unusual weather, but the many records of this
habit under average conditions contradict this suggestion.
Russell E. Mumford kindly furnished this following condensation
of his (1953) observation of what appears to be the highest towhee
nest on record:
"On June 26, 1952, I was walking along an old road through
a strip of second growth woodland near Freetown, Jackson County,
Ind. I observed a bulky nest about 18 feet above the road placed
in a bushy tangle where the tops of two small saplings of shagbark
hickory (Carya ovata) and the vine of a wild grape (Vitis
sp.) were interlaced. By shaking the trees lightly, I failed to
flush off any bird, but a vigorous shaking caused a female
Red-eyed Towhee to burst from the nest noisily scolding me. I
could not examine the nest at this time, but on the following day
took a pole with a mirror attached and noted that there were eggs
in the nest. The adult towhee was not present at this visit. The
distance from the base of the nest to the ground was measured and
found to be 17 feet, 5 inches. About an hour later, I passed the
tree again, shook the nest, and the adult female was again flushed
off. As before, she was very excited and scolded me soundly as
long as I remained in the vicinity of the nest.
"On July 4, the eggs were found beside the nest on the
ground, both having been knocked from the tree in some way. The
predominate trees at the nest were saplings of shagbark hickory
and white oak (Quercus alba). The nearest clearing was
about 75 yards from the nest site and the tree canopy was
completely closed over the nest."
In peninsular Florida, *** A. H. Howell (1932) writes that the
nest is commonly placed on small bushes, 2 to 4 feet above the
ground. Nests are occasionally found on the ground under palmetto
leaves or brush piles. Howell adds that three eggs comprise the
usual complement and that two or three broods are raised. Early
nests are found in April, second broods in June, and third broods
in August. H. H. Bailey (1925) describes a Florida nest as made of
dry leaves, leaf stems, pine needles, and grasses, lined with fine
As expected, birds in the northern parts of the breeding range
begin nesting activities somewhat later. However, it is
interesting to note that by early May there are records from such
points as Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Indiana (F.
M. Chapman, 1932).
F. W. Davis writes me from Amherst that "The nesting
season in our section of Massachusetts, based on estimated first
egg dates, extended from May 15 through July 5, 1960, from May 18
through July 8, 1961, and from May 22 through July 14, 1962."
He continues: "I believe the male assists neither in
incubating nor brooding. During incubation the female tends to
join the male to forage, and he often accompanies her back to the
vicinity of the nest, but I have never seen a male take part in
any activities at the nest before the young hatched, except for
occasional anticipatory food-bringing. The female develops a very
prominent brood patch, the male no sign of one, nor has a male
ever been observed on a nest. The female deprived of her mate can
successfully fledge a brood, but no males have succeeded unless
the young were old enough to need no brooding when the female was
"Both parents are active in feeding the young and in nest
sanitation. They eat the egg shells as soon as the young are out
of them, and for the first few days they eat the fecal sacs; later
they carry more and more of these away. Both parents also were
seen to eat nest parasites. At first the adults feed the young by
placing their bills into the gullet and pumping vigorously,
seeming to vibrate their bodies as they do so. As the young grow
this method diminishes and finally ceases. When the male brings
food the female usually leaves, but in the early stages while she
is still brooding the nestlings, she often just hops on the nest
rim and watches while the male feeds them. Occasionally he gives
her the food, or she takes some from him, and both feed the young
F. L. Burns (1915) gives the incubation period for the nominate
race as "12 to 13 days." O. L. Austin, Jr., informs me
that at a nest in his garden in Gainesville, Fla., the period from
the laying of the last egg to the hatching of the last egg was 13
Eggs.--The rufous-sided towhee lays
from two to six eggs, most often three or four. They are usually
short-ovate or ovate and slightly glossy. The ground color is
grayish or creamy white and occasionally greenish white. They are
more or less evenly speckled or spotted with "russet,"
"chestnut brown," "Carob brown," "pecan
brown," or "Mars brown," with underlying spots of
"light neutral gray," or "pale purplish gray."
On some eggs the undermarkings are quite numerous and on others
practically nonexistent. The brown spots are quite sharply defined
in most instances, often so profuse that they almost obscure the
ground, but occasionally the markings are clouded. The spottings
generally tend to become heavier toward the large end where
frequently they form a solid cap.
The measurements of 50 eggs of P. e. erythrophthalmus
average 23.1 by 17.0 millimeters; the eggs showing the four
extremes measure 25.7 by 18.3, 24.4 by 19.3, 20.3
by 17.3, and 21.3 by 16.8 millimeters.
Plumages.--As described by A. A.
Saunders (1956), the skin of the newly hatched young bird is flesh
colored, the mouth is edged with pale yellow, and the lining of
the mouth is pink. The down is medium gray and occurs on the
capital, dorsal, humeral, femoral, and secondary tracts.
J. Dwight (1900) describes the natal down of this species as
"pale clove-brown." G. M. Sutton (1935) appears to be in
agreement with Dwight. David K. Wetherbee has written me that
"drab-gray" is a better description. *** Dwight's (1900)
detailed description goes on to state that the juvenal plumage of
the male is--
acquired by a complete postnatal moult. Above, including
sides of head, cinnamon-brown (often darker) somewhat obscurely
striped, broadly on the back, more narrowly on the crown, with
deep olive-brown. Wings dull black, the primaries with edgings and
a patch at their bases white, the tertiaries with broad edgings of
buff and walnut-brown, the innermost white edged, the wing coverts
with buff or pale cinnamon edgings. Tail deeper black than the
wings, the three outer rectrices with subterminal areas of white.
Below, dull white, strongly washed with buff or pale yellow,
cinnamon tinged on breast, flanks and crissum, and streaked on the
throat and sides with dull black. Bill and feet pinkish buff, the
former becoming slaty black, the latter dusky sepia-brown. Iris,
sepia-brown becoming deep red during the winter.
Dwight (1900) further states that the first male winter plumage
acquired by a partial postjuvenal moult, beginning the
middle of August, which involves the body plumage, the wing
coverts, the tertiaries and the tail but not the primaries, their
coverts, and the secondaries. Young and old become almost
indistinguishable except by the browner primary coverts of the
young birds. Whole head, throat, breast, back, rump, wing coverts
and tertiaries jet black; abdomen pure white, the sides and flanks
rich chestnut, the crissum cinnamon. The upper tail coverts are
usually edged with cinnamon and the back sometimes has obscure
Vandyke-brown edgings. The tertiary endings are pale buff with
walnut, those of the inner tertiary nearly white.
G. M. Sutton (1935) comments that Dwight of course refers to
New York birds and that in other areas the onset of the
post-juvenal molt is much earlier than August. Sutton presents
records of the beginning of the molt in mid-July in specimens from
Michigan and Georgia.
Dwight's (1900) description of the molts continues:
First nuptial plumage acquired by wear which is marked by
the end of the breeding season producing a ragged plumage, but the
black areas do not fade perceptibly and the chestnut flanks fade
but very little. The brown primary coverts are the distinguishing
feature of young birds.
Adult winter plumage acquired by a complete postnuptial
moult beginning early in August. Differs from first winter dress
chiefly in the blacker wings, especially the primary coverts and
deeper wing edgings. Old and young now become indistinguishable.
Adult nuptial plumage acquired by wear and differing from
first nuptial by black instead of brown primary coverts. A few
feathers may be assumed by moult on the chin and elsewhere, but
they are insignificant in numbers.
In the female juvenal plumage olive-brown wings and tail
replace the black ones of the male. The first winter plumage,
acquired by a molt of similar extent to that of the male, differs
in having the head, back, throat, and breast brown instead of
black. The earliest record of the first molt I have seen is a
female I took near Brunswick, Ga., June 24, 1949, that shows a few
buff flank feathers. Adult and young females cannot be
distinguished in this plumage. The first nuptial is acquired by
wear and the adult winter by a complete postnuptial molt.
Subsequent plumages do not differ, females never assuming the
black areas of the male.
F. W. Davis writes me: "Certainly August is far too late
for the onset of the postnuptial molt in Massachusetts. A breeding
female banded June 4, 1961, with a well-developed brood patch, was
retaken July 4, 1961, and had then molted all her upper tail
coverts except the central pair; an adult male taken the same day
had shed all his upper tail coverts." ***
Food.--The towhee is principally a
ground feeder, and this is reflected in its diet. W. L. McAtee
(1926) comments on the food habits of this species as follows:
The food of the chewink consists of a great variety of
items, the bird taking apparently almost everything unearthed in
its rummaging of the forest floor. About three-tenths of the food
is animal matter and seven-tenths vegetable. Of the latter portion
seeds, mast, and wild fruits are the important items. The mast
consists chiefly of acorns; the favorite seeds are those of
ragweed, foxtail grass, smartweed, and dock; and the fruits that
are most frequently taken are those of strawberry, huckleberry,
blueberry, bayberry, and blackberry. The towhee has very rarely
been observed to feed on any agricultural product.
Beetles are eaten more frequently than any other insects and
among them weevils are especially favored. Moths and caterpillars,
bugs, and ants are other insect food items of importance. Besides
insects numerous spiders and snails, smaller numbers of
daddy-long-legs, millipeds, and sowbugs, and a very few small
salamanders, lizards, and snakes are consumed. The insects eaten
include various agricultural pests such as the potato beetle, plum
curculio, strawberry crown girdler, flea beetles, cutworms,
striped and spotted cucumber beetles, and the cornfield ant. Pests
of trees which are known to be on the bill-of-fare of the chewink
embrace nut weevils, bark beetles, adults of round-headed and
flat-headed wood borers, leaf beetles including the locust leaf
miner, and the variable leaf beetle (Typophorus canellus)
which injures mountain ash and butternut among other trees, leaf
chafers, junebugs, the goldsmith beetle, the yellow casebearer (Chlamys
plicata) which feeds on the leaves of numerous deciduous
trees, click beetles, scale insects, cicadas, tree hoppers,
carpenter ants, sawflies, and tent caterpillars and a great
variety of other caterpillars. The chewink is an exemplary
woodland citizen and should receive our best protection.
In addition to this rather complete account, many unusual food
items have been recorded. G. H. Breiding (1946) quotes A. L.
Nelson (in litt.) as informing him of a single record of a towhee
eating the drupes of moonseed (Menispermum canadense) in
Maryland, which Breiding notes is claimed to be poisonous to
humans. Holly berries were eaten by a towhee observed by G. A.
Petrides (1942). E. H. Forbush (1929) states that Arthur T. Wayne
says that when spring arrives in South Carolina, these birds go to
the tallest trees and feed upon the buds. E. G. Holt (1918) noted
towhees feeding on mulberries in a small orchard in Alabama. F. H.
King (1883) examined 17 specimens and found that "five had
eaten small seeds; one, wheat; one, oats; one, raspberries; one,
seven moths; three, nine beetles; one, ants; one, a wasp; one, an
ichneumon; two, three grasshoppers; two, two cockroaches; one, a
walkingstick (Spectrum femoratum), and four of its eggs;
and one, a larva." T. S. Roberts (1932) quotes Dr. G. H.
Leudtke's notes on the behavior of a towhee that remained at a
feeding station at Fairmont, Mich., beyond the usual time for fall
departure. This bird ate suet, oats, and flax during the period
October 25 - November 1. H. C. Oberholser (1938) adds the boll
weevil to the varied insect items included in the diet of this
exceedingly beneficial species.
It should be noted that no writer since L. J. P. Vieillot
(1819) has reported "acorns" as being an item of diet
for the towhee.
Frederic W. Davis (in litt.) adds the following notes from his
observations in Amherst, Mass.: "When feeding on the ground
the towhee usually progresses by 'kick' foraging, scattering the
ground debris with its feet to expose potential food as it goes.
When insect larvae and other food are plentiful on top of the
substrate, the birds resort to 'visual' or 'peck' foraging without
scratching the debris aside. Occasionally towhees will attempt
short 'flycatching' sallies on the wing, either from the ground or
from a perch. In the few instances of this I have seen, the
intended prey was always a conspicuous and slow-moving insect, and
the bird's sallies were too awkwardly executed to be successful.
"In late May or early June the birds are often seen in
highbush blueberry, Vaccinium corymbosum, eating the
blossoms. Arboreal foraging predominates during the first week or
two of June, and throughout the month the towhees frequent a
variety of deciduous trees to glean larvae from the foliage.
Fruits of the aromatic wintergreen, blueberries, and huckleberries
are consumed not only by the adults, but are fed in quantity to
the nestlings. One nestling about six days old was fed a
wintergreen berry so large the young bird could not swallow it,
and succeeded in spewing it out only after 45 minutes of trying.
In addition to smooth larvae, the nestlings are also given hairy
caterpillars such as those of the gypsy moth, which the adults
first soften well by chewing. Adults also consume large numbers of
ant pupae, which they seem to prefer to the adult ants when they
uncover an ant nest."
Behavior.--F. M. Chapman (1932)
says: "There is a vigorousness about the towhee's notes and
actions which suggests both a bustling, energetic disposition and
a good constitution." He continues, "The dead leaves fly
before his attack. . . . It is only when singing that the Towhee
is fully at rest. Then a change comes over him; he is in love, and
mounting a low branch, he repeatedly utters his sweet bird s-i-n-n-g
with convincing earnestness." Such comments are typical
expressions of almost all who have observed this attractive bird.
T. E. Musselman (1923), in writing of trapping experiences with
towhees in Georgia, adds some interesting notes to the recorded
behavior patterns. A male bird "upon being seized. .
.commenced singing and kept up his song until I released
him." This unusual reaction occurred on each of 30 captures
of this individual. Injury feigning has been recorded for the
species by S. A. Grimes (1936) who states that he observed it
"rarely." Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway (1874b) note that
"They are much attracted to their young, and when approached
evince great anxiety, the female thrusting herself forward to
divert attention by her outcries and her simulated lameness."
E. H. Forbush (1929) adds the following comments concerning the
behavior of nesting pairs:
While the female is incubating, the male waits upon her and
occasionally relieves her on the nest. As the nest is exceedingly
well concealed, and the female dull colored, she can sit until
almost trodden upon before she leaves the nest; when finally
driven from it she is likely to act as if disabled, thus
attempting to lure the intruder away. The young usually remain in
the nest ten or twelve days, if not disturbed, until their wings
grow strong, but if disturbed they may leave it before they are
able to fly. When the young have learned to fly, the family keeps
together for a time, but seldom, even in migration, is anything
like a close flock formed, for Towhees are not normally
gregarious. During and after the molt in August all are rather
quiet, and shy. When severe frosts come most of them disappear in
the night on their southward migration.
From his studies of the species in Massachusetts, F. W. Davis
writes me: "The towhee, when conspicuous is very much so. It
calls, sings, and forages with little or no attempt at
concealment, and even flies short distances noisily in what I term
the 'flut flight,' its wings making a thuttering sound audible at
some distance. But when it wants to, the bird can be most
inconspicuous, remaining quietly out of sight in the underbrush or
flying silently away well ahead of the intruder. The towhee's
sense of hearing is apparently very keen, for birds I have been
watching have often taken alarm at another person's approach long
before I became aware of it.
"The species has a phenomenal ability to keep itself
hidden from view. I have so often been unable to find or flush
towhees I have watched fly into certain covers that I presumed
they must have flown away unnoticed. In August, 1960, I saw a male
bird fly into a dense but isolated patch of hardhack and sweetfern
not more than 20 feet across. After trying my best to flush him
for 30 minutes, I gave up in disgust and left. I had retreated
only a short distance however, when a well-modulated twee
from the copse announced he was still there.
"Then in June, 1962, another adult male flew into a dense
cover of cinnamon fern and lit near me on the ground. He evidently
saw me at once, for he froze motionless in a hunched-over crouch.
He stayed still when I moved so long as I did not shorten the
distance between us. Every time I tried to approach him, however,
he scurried without a sound, still in his crouch, a few feet to
one side or the other, always at right angles to my approach. Thus
his tactics in evading me were displacement rather than flight.
"Reaction to disturbance at the nest varies considerably.
Usually the brooding female remains on the nest until the intruder
is within a few feet, sometimes until the vegetation over the nest
is parted, and in a few cases until she is actually touched. She
generally leaves the nest in a crouch and scuttles off silently
for some distance under cover before she rises and returns to
scold the intruder. During incubation she may desert the area
temporarily, or she and her mate may twee apprehensively
from the nearby cover. When the young are about five days old both
the male and female become bolder, and will often dash to within 3
or 4 feet of the intruder, tweeing excitedly with wings and
tail spread and crown raised, before retiring to continue scolding
from the trees at a safer distance. The male often sings and
scolds alternately. Several times in reaction to disturbances near
but not at the nest, the parents led 7-day or older young away
"While his mate was incubating in June, 1960, a male
towhee discovered his reflection in the windows of a nearby house.
From crack of dawn until dark he attacked his image with time out
only to feed. He would flutter against a pane for a few seconds,
take a few tentative but firm pecks at it, retreat, give a few drink-your-tea
calls, and then return to drive off the interloper. Apparently his
reflection in the glass was clear a few feet away, but disappeared
closer by. When a mirror was substituted he remained at it for two
hours at a stretch, feinting at his reflection, pecking at it,
rising and striking the glass with beak and feet simultaneously.
Then he would pause, sing a few times, and renew the attack. He
continued this behavior even after the eggs hatched. On his way to
feed the young with a beakful of larvae he usually tarried long
enough to make a few sallies. Ultimately he fought with--and
smeared--every window in the house.
"Towhees in captivity consume quantities of water and are
avid bathers. Wild birds in suburban areas are frequent visitors
to bird baths. In most of our study areas free surface water is
scarce, even after heavy rains, because the heavy layer of humus
absorbs it. After a very heavy dew the morning of June 17, 1961, I
watched a male towhee fly into one cluster of red maple leaves
after another and flutter among them. After becoming thoroughly
drenched, he flew to a gray birch where he fluffed vigorously and
then preened his plumage as it dried."
Voice.--The towhee is a vigorous
songster. R. T. Moore (1913) uses him as the epitome when he
comments that the song of the fox sparrow is "quite as
strenuous as that of his cousin, the Chewink." While many of
its various vernacular names are of course phonetic
interpretations of its call, the towhee has a considerable
repertoire and it is interesting to note many observations and
interpretations various authors have recorded.
C. J. Maynard (1896) comments that "when disturbed, it
constantly reiterates its name of 'towhee' given very decidedly
with the accent on the last syllable. This note is oftentimes
interpreted as being 'chewink'. . . ." E. H. Forbush (1929)
provides these descriptive terms: "towhee', chewink',
joree', wink rrrink; chuck, chuck; 'whit-a
whit-a-whit' (H. D. Minot); song, 'drink-your-tea'; dick'
you, fiddle fiddle fiddle, or better yet 'chuck-burr,
pill-a-will-a-will-a' (E. T. Seton), most of the force
expended on the chuck, the burr on a lower key, and
the rest uttered rapidly; also a 'quavering warble difficult of
description' (E. A. Samuels); an unusual song jung (low) dee-dee-dee-dee-dee
(high) ees-ees (higher) yu-yu-yu-yu-yu (low) (F. H.
H. A. Allard (1928) adds his observations of "strange
winter singing" of a group of towhees which passed the winter
near Chapel, N.C.--
a strange, squeaky song. . .interspersed with its familiar 'tur-ee-tur-ee.'
[I heard] a peculiar bird expression delivered for some seconds in
a sweet conversational way, somewhat hushed in quality. . . . an
almost indescribable song-babble or warble, the notes uttered in
succession, with warbler-like variations. . . . interspersing his
expressions with the familiar well known 'tur-ee-tur-ee-tur-ee,'
now uttered in an excited manner. [On March 1, 1904]. . .It was a
happy courtship scene, in which brilliantly attired males were
trying to win the approval of a female. Again I heard its new,
mysteriously soft, affectionate expressions, almost a subdued
whispering chant, warbler-like. . . . It is evidently his true
love-song or murmur, remotely reminding one of the Bobolink's
sweetness at times, and delivered while in company with the
females, and doubtless during the active courtship period. . . .
T. S. Roberts (1932), after considering other authors' attempts
to describe the song of this species, states his preference thus:
". . .chipper-chee-e-e-e-e, the first two syllables
sharp and clear, the latter part a trill of a slightly lower
pitch." A. W. Butler (1897) adds the interesting note that
the "female does not sound the final k in chewink,
which is distinctly given by the male." To Roberts the song
sounds something like "'look-out, ter-r-r.' The first
syllable has a rising inflection; the second is slurred." E.
H. Eaton (1914) finds a distinction between the call notes "chewink"
and "tow-hee" and comments that the former is
often followed directly by the latter. C. R. Mason wrote to Mr.
Bent in 1945 of his observation of what he assumed to be a single
individual that frequented his place three successive summers.
"Instead of the 'Drink Your Tea' song its notes are 'Drink,
Drink, Drink, Tsit, Tsit.' The last two notes are inaudible
fifty feet from the bird, but the 'Drink' notes are quite
loud and ringing." From an unpublished manuscript provided by
A. A. Saunders, the following information has been extracted.
"The song. . .is short and, in its commonest form, fairly
simple. This form consists of two notes, usually on different
pitches, followed by a short trill, or a series of rapid notes all
on the same pitch. A still simpler form consists of one note and a
trill. There are many other variations. The songs vary in length
from one or two and three-fifths seconds, and in pitch from A5
to D7. The pitch interval varies from none
at all to seven and a half tones, the average being three and
"The quality of Towhee songs is exceedingly variable. Some
are quite musical, others decidedly rattle-like or buzzy. Some are
partly musical and partly rattle. The musical part may be the
first notes or the trill. One bird that lived on the grounds of
the Allegany school for three summers was outstanding in its
extremely fine first notes, musical and bell-like.
"In 36 years of records in southern Connecticut, the first
spring song of the Towhee averages April 19, the earliest being
Apr. 2, 1938, and the latest May 2, 1924. The occasional birds
that winter here may start singing in March. I have three dates of
March singing, the earliest being Mar. 16, 1944, but I have not
used them in working out the average first date for spring
"Song ceases in August. In Allegany Park the last song
heard averages August 5, the latest Aug. 13, 1937. In Connecticut
the last song averages August 12, the latest Aug. 19, 1949.
Revival of song in fall is rare; I have three October dates; Oct.
12, 1935, Oct. 8, 1939, and Oct. 3, 1946."
Val Nolan reports his interesting observations on the song of
the female Towhee: "At 0430 on Apr. 23, 1957, a cloudy
morning with the temperature at 65o,
I heard a loud and unfamiliar song, faintly reminiscent of the
utterance of the male towhee. A female Towhee was perched 14 feet
high in the top of a flowering dogwood in an old field; in 5
minutes she sang 15 times, then flew down and fell silent.
"Her song was made up of five and sometimes six notes, a
long 'dee' followed by a series of rapid 'da' sounds
on the same key. The quality was labored and unmusical, flat and
somewhat squeaky. "I heard her no more, although I passed the
spot daily and in June spent two full days watching warbler nests
nearby. A male towhee held territory there, but he was not in
evidence within 15 minutes of the time when the female sang. A
towhee nest with eggs was being incubated there in May.
"This is reminiscent in certain particulars of the singing
of the female song sparrow mentioned by Mrs. Nice (1943), whose
song 'is confined to the period in early spring before nest
building begins. . .; it is always given from an elevation--a
large weed, a bush or even a tree, in contrast to the female's
usual behavior of staying close to the ground; it is short,
simple, and entirely unmusical.' And, like the female song
sparrow's performance, the female towhee's apparently elicited no
response from other birds of the same species."
Field marks.--The rufous-sided
towhee is about the size of the catbird but much more robust. The
male is black above and below from bill to breast, has chestnut
sides, white belly, and conspicuous white patches on the tail. The
tail is used vigorously, flicking, opening and closing almost
constantly. The female has the black replaced by brown. Young
birds of both sexes are markedly streaked on the breast and the
flank colors are poorly developed. E. H. Forbush (1929) points out
that a bird scratching noisily in dense brush is usually a towhee
or a brown thrasher.
Enemies.--Records of the towhee as
a host for both internal and external parasites include the
following: H. J. Van Cleave (1942), an acanthocephalan, Plagiorhynchus
formosus Van Cleave; O. W. Olsen (1939), a spiruroid nematode,
Dispharnyx pipilonis Olsen; H. E. Ewing (1929), the North
American chigger, Trombicula irritans; C. M. Herman (1938),
Haemaphysalis leporis-palustris. The species has been
recorded as a food item of the Cooper's hawk (F. N. and Frances
Herbert Friedmann (1929) states that the towhee is a very
common victim of the cowbird, and continues:
At Ithaca, this species is uncommon and so extremely local
that I have not had any experience with it as a molothrine host.
This bird is called one of the commonest victims in New York by
Eaton; in Connecticut by Sage; in Ohio by Jones; in Indiana by
Evermann; in Iowa by Anderson, etc. The Towhee is one of the
larger of the common victims of the Cowbird, and with none of its
dupes is the latter more uniformly successful. Larger numbers of
parasitic eggs have been reported from single nests of this
species than from any other bird, and there is not one case on
record of a Towhee covering up, or in any way trying to get rid of
the strange eggs. The highest record is a nest containing eight
eggs of the Cowbird together with five of the Towhee, a set taken
in northern Iowa, and now in the collection of Mr. R. M. Barnes.
Sanborn and Geolitz (Wilson Bull. XXVII, no. 4, Dec. 1915, p.
444), record a nest of this species, May 14, 1914, Lake County,
Illinois, with one egg of its own and eight of the Cowbird. A
similar set, one and eight of the parasite, is recorded in the
Oologist XXXI, no. 6, June 15, 1914, p. 119. There are also
instances of five, four and three eggs of the Cowbird in single
About a hundred and eighty definite records have come to my
notice, ranging from New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania,
south to West Virginia, and west to Ohio, Indiana, Illinois,
Michigan, and Iowa.
*** F. W. Davis writes me: "Cowbirds were common on all
our study areas before, during, and after the towhee nesting
period, but their incidence of parasitism seems comparatively low.
Of 81 towhee nests found during the course of the study, only 4,
or slightly less than 5 percent were victimized, each to the
extent of 1 egg per nest. Our data are not adequate to show any
effect of cowbird parasitism on the towhee's nesting
records based on bandings indicate that 4 - 6 years is not an
uncommonly long life span for this species. M. T. Cooke (1950)
notes an individual that was banded Mar. 21, 1937, and retrapped
Dec. 16, 1944, and Mar. 3, 1946. This bird was at least 10 years
old when released the last time. An outstanding record of movement
is that of Marie V. Beals (1939) of a female banded Oct. 5, 1937,
at Elmhurst, N.Y., and killed Apr. 29, 1938, at Crystal River,
Contributed by Joshua C.
*Original Source: Bent,
Arthur Cleveland and collaborators (compiled and edited by Oliver
L. Austin, Jr.). 1968. Smithsonian Institution United States
National Museum Bulletin 237 (Part 1): 562-579. United States
Government Printing Office
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