Friday, July 19, 2024

A female eastern towhee in Groton on April 24. (Photo: Tom Murray)

Eastern towhees (Pipilo erythrophthalmus), also called chewinks or ground robins, are large sparrows. Unlike most sparrows, which are mostly brown, towhees have rusty red sides. The females have a brown head and back, while the males are black in those places. If you get a good enough look, you might also notice they have red eyes.

According to ornithologist Edward Howe Forbush, “The active, strong towhee is a bird of striking appearance. He is noisy and conspicuous whether on the ground or in the air. He rustles the dry leaves like some animal twenty times his size, scratching … with both feet, and even his wing-strokes in flight are noisy, while his flashy tail advertises his progress.” Because of their short wings, towhees do not fly high or far. They flutter from bush to bush, making a thuttering sound with their wings. These sparrows are named after the call they make: tow-hee, tow-hee. They also sing a song, often identified as “drink your tea-ea-ea-ea-ea.”

A female towhee in Dunstable finds a meal on June 10. (Photo: Tom Murray)

Eastern towhees like dense brush near young forests without much overstory. As our eastern forests age, the habitat becomes less suitable for towhees, and their numbers here are declining. There may be other reasons for the declining numbers; a vast study in 2019 published in the journal Science indicated that since the 1970s, the total number of birds in North America has declined by almost 30 percent – about 3 billion birds! – and most is occurring in only 12 species, one of which is sparrows. According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, eastern towhee populations declined by about 53 percent between 1966 and 2019, though there are some indications population losses are slowing.

An eastern towhee seen Dec. 26, 2021, overwintering in Ipswich. (Photo: Tom Murray)

Eastern towhees arrive in our area in early April. They leave in the night after the first hard frost, although some towhees in Massachusetts overwinter. Towhees are foragers who in the summer eat and collect for their young the caterpillars found in leaf litter. They also devour beetles and bees, spiders and snails, grasshoppers and millipedes, ants and pill bugs. To expose insects and seeds, towhees kick back with both feet at the same time to push aside leaves and debris. In one study, towhees used this method to uncover seeds that were buried almost an inch deep. In the fall and winter, their diet changes: Plants, especially berries and seeds, make up about 80 percent of their winter diet.

A male eastern towhee in Watertown on April 21, 2019. (Photo: Ann Schlesinger)

Eastern towhees nest in or under low bushes. The female spends a few hours each day building a nest of grasses, leaves and strips of bark. She usually completes it in about five days. A few days later, she begins laying eggs, one each morning, until she has laid three to five eggs.

A female towhee develops a brood patch, a featherless area on her underside that helps her warm the eggs. (Feathers prevent her from warming the eggs efficiently. Heat transfers better from skin to eggs.) The female’s feathers regrow after the chicks hatch. The female incubates the eggs for about 12 days. After they hatch, the young birds grow fast. Both parents work together to feed the young and keep the nest clean. When feeding for the first few days, a parent places its bill deep into a chick’s mouth and regurgitates food. As the chicks become older, they become more adept at eating on their own. In only seven to 10 days they fly away and leave the nest, but return for a few more weeks and the parents continue feeding them.

A male towhee sings in Groton on May 29, 2017. (Photo: Tom Murray)

Eastern towhees like to bathe, and you may see one visiting a puddle or a birdbath. When pools of water are not available, the birds may find other ways to bathe. According to F.W. Davis, “After a very heavy dew … 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.”

A male towhee in Rockport in 2016. (Photo: Margaret Lewis)

At times, towhees call, sing and forage without trying to stay hidden. But when they have young to protect, towhees are masters of concealment. According to Davis in 1962,

In June, an 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.

Eastern towhees are not abundant in Cambridge or Somerville, but if you keep your eyes peeled, you may just be able to spot one on occasion.

A female towhee in Saugus on June 24, 2023. (Photo: Richard George)

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Jeanine Farley is an educational writer who has lived in the Boston area for more than 30 years. She enjoys taking photos of our urban wild things.