Eastern Towhee Passing Through My Yard

An eastern towhee is back on my property. I didn’t see it, but heard its distinctive song, “drink your tea.” Before we talk about this bird’s behavior, let’s discuss its family, the Emberizids. Cousins to the eastern towhee are seedeaters, sparrows, longspurs and some buntings. This is a large family. Their most common feature is their conical bill.

About 10 years ago, the Buffalo Ornithological Society reported that this bird is commonly seen in our area from the beginning to the middle of April. It sticks around all summer, but is not seen a lot. Then, from late August to early October, reports of sightings are more common again. After this period, it heads south again, sometimes all the way to Guatamala.

The towhee prefers forest edges, riparian thickets and woodlands. This isn’t a bird that takes advantage of my feeders. It prefers terrestrial invertebrates (insects), berries, acorns, grass and other forbs. Those are broad-leaved plants that don’t include the grasses, sedges, shrubs and trees. It hunts by using its bill and feet to stir up the leaves and weeds. I bet it likes my natural yard of native plants without any insecticides on them.

This species has short wings, so flying is not its strong suit. It can just manage to get from bush to bush, but you will never see one in the tree tops.

Spring time. Let’s talk about its family life. It breeds from southern Canada to our southeastern states. The male heads north before the female to find a breeding territory, sometime from the end of March to the beginning of April. That territory can be from to 2 acres. Often, it returns to the same area year after year. He will sing in shrubs or on the ground. When a female arrives, she is chased by one or two males, in competition for her.

Both sexes try to attract the other by displays. One display is when the male and female sit on a branch and spread their tails to show off the white spots on them. The male also lifts his wings and fluffs up the feathers.

Then, the female finds a perfect location to build a nest – usually on the ground, in weeds or under a bush. It’s her job to build it. The male is likely to sing above her during this time.

The nest is composed of leaves, vines and strips of bark. Teeny, tiny stems of weeds are used to line it. Those chicks will like the softness.

Then, in the middle of May, that singing slows down as the nesting commences. If you do hear a male singing this late in the spring, it’s probably an unlucky one, who didn’t get a mate.

The female incubates the eggs, but the male does help feed the young. Mostly insects are provided, but some fruit is welcome, too. The chicks fledge in about 10 days. That means that they leave the nest.

Summertime. The young will fly in a week or two after fledging. The parents still feed them for about a month. Then, the adults often raise a second brood. The whole process repeats until July or August. The first brood joins other juveniles and roams pretty far. (You know how teenagers are.) By August, there is no more singing and the adults develop their fall plumage.

Fall. In September and October, everybody gradually commences their long migration south. Mostly, they fly at night. In daytime, they make rest stops. Females go the furthest south. Flocks range from 15 to 25 individuals. When you are out birding, you might see them in mixed flocks with northern cardinals, different species of sparrows and dark-eyed juncos.

Good birding to you. Don’t forget to look in shrubs as well as the trees.