Plants and Animals

Eastern Towhee

This beautiful year-round resident songbird invites you to “drink your teeeeea” in Missouri’s outdoors.

Do you have a favorite songbird? Almost everybody has one, birders and non-birders alike. Bluebirds and cardinals are probably front runners in this category, at least in Missouri, but I am especially fond of a fairly secretive bird that often escapes the notice of casual bird watchers—the eastern towhee. A member of the sparrow family, eastern towhees (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) are similar in size to a robin and striking in appearance. The male is covered in sooty black plumage except for its rusty-colored flanks, white wing corners and white belly. Females are covered with a warm brown where the males are black. If you catch the eastern towhee in the right light you will find its eye to be a deep red.

Eastern towhees are typically found in brushy areas as exemplified by the photograph. My favorite place to photograph towhees is Shaw Nature Reserve in Franklin County. I always head to areas with thick undergrowth where I’m almost sure to find towhees fluttering between grapevine thickets and shrubs, making their “chewink” call. It is always a challenge to capture a clean image of a towhee as I search for a moment when an individual hops into a clear field of view through the tangled habitat. Sometimes if I’m lucky I am treated to the male’s song, “Drink your teeeeea,” a quintessential avian melody, familiar to most bird watchers.

Eastern towhees are ground foragers and their diet includes seeds, fruits, insects, spiders and even snails. Although towhees are a bit shy, they occasionally visit backyard feeders, typically foraging on the ground beneath the actual feeding structures. They are fun to watch because they prefer to scratch the ground with both feet at the same time, hopping backwards in an awkward dance movement. Several years ago my wife and I moved into a home in a dense patch of tall cedars and soon learned that we were coexisting with a population of towhees. I found them to be somewhat crepuscular, similar to deer, as they only came to our feeding station at the fringes of the day, barely visible in the dim light. During our first spring the cedars became filled with a chorus of towhees, but I could never locate an individual bird. Finally one morning I spotted a male singing his heart out at the very top of one of the cedar trees. On further investigation, I found a couple more of the crooners, each perched at the top of its favorite tree.

Eastern towhees are listed as year-round residents throughout Missouri and are considered “fairly common.” They typically nest in the same type of undergrowth where they can be found foraging. After the eggs hatch, both parents care for the young until they leave the nest and learn to fend for themselves. As they mature, males establish their own territory where they will eventually fly up to a favorite perch and proclaim to the world, “Drink your teeeeea!”

story and photo by Danny Brown

If you’re one of the more than 51 million Americans who love to watch birds, Feeding Backyard Birds is the free publication for you. It features details on when, where and how to feed the birds, it also gives tips on providing year-round native habitat. It includes color illustrations of 34 birds common to Missouri. To request this item, write to MDC, Feeding Backyard Birds, PO Box 180, Jefferson City, MO 65102-0180 or e-mail pubstaff@mdc.mo.gov.