Eastern Towhee | Life Histories of North American Birds | A.C. Bent
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Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds
A chapter from the electronic book: Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds

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Eastern Towhee
Pipilo erythrophthalmus [Rufous-sided Towhee]

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 larger end.

*** 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 courtship display."

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 high-pitched tetetetete."

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 completion.

"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 egg.

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 grasses.

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 lost.

"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 together."

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 days.

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 is--

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 from it.

"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. Allen)."

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 two-fifths tones.

"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 arrivals.

"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 Hammerstrom, 1951).

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 nests.

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 success."

Banding Records.--Longevity 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, Fla.

Eastern Towhee* Pipilo erythrophthalmus [Rufous-sided Towhee]

*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