Towhees colorful, more often seen than heard

By Jay V. Huner
Journal Corespondent

Towhees resemble robins, but are different
• Louisiana Ecrevisse, Boyce, LA

Birds are more often heard than seen. Overall color patterns function as camouflage. Bright colors certainly occur but are generally exposed only during aggressive or mating interactions.

Ornithologists often describe bird songs in terms of phrases. "Drink You Teaaaaaaaaa" is often heard in heavy cover, especially briar patches, on the edges of our piney woods. This is the song of the Eastern Towhee.

So, why is it called a Ground Robin? First, consider its color pattern. The male is black above with a black hood. Its sides are a bright rufous red and the belly is white. There are bright white spots at the end of the black tail. Female Eastern Towhees have the same general pattern but the black is replaced with brown. So, both sexes do somewhat resemble American Robins.

Second, consider its behavior pattern. Eastern Towhees are birds that are ground-oriented. This is where they find most of their invertebrate food including worms, insects, millipedes, etc. and much of the fruit and seeds upon which they feed.

So, Eastern Towhees look a good bit like robins and are ground-oriented. But, are they robins?

Robins are thrushes. Eastern Towhees are very large, colorful sparrows! Check out their bills which are large, cone-shaped appendages designed to break hard seed shells. Robin bills are long, narrow and sharply pointed for catching their primary food earthworms.

Eastern Towhees exhibit a unique form of foraging for food in leaf litter. They kick both feet back simultaneously. If you find feeding towhees, make it a point to watch this odd behavior.

It's hard to get good looks at Eastern Towhees because they are usually flitting back and forth in briar patch tangles. However, males will sometimes perch in branches above the ground when singing. Birders often use Eastern Screech-Owl calls and make "pisshing" sounds to lure both sexes out of cover for better views. Eastern Towhees are found across the eastern half of North America into southern Canada.

One race in Florida differs from other races by having white eyes. Others including those in our region have red eyes.

There is a species of towhee in the western half of our continent that looks very much like the Eastern Towhee although it has e xtensive white spotting on its wings. This is the Spotted Towhee. However, ornithologists once classified Eastern and Spotted towhees as the same species, the Rufous-sided Towhee! Now, based on DNA analyses and study of songs and behavior, the species are separated.

Spotted Towhees do move eastward in winter. Some are found in our region then, much to the delight of birders. But, they have to check birds with spotted wings carefully because the two species hybridize and within the birding community hybrids don't "count"!

One would think that Eastern Towhees are pretty safe from harm in briar patches remember Brer Rabbit? Well, Brown-headed Cowbirds are nest parasites. The females watch for unguarded nests and lay eggs in them. If the host does not reject the egg and it hatches, the baby cowbird will compete with its foster siblings and often push them out of the nest!

Unfortunately, female Eastern Towhees don't recognize cowbird eggs. Still, there are good numbers of Eastern Towhees throughout our region.