Some species of birds are very common at Prairie Ridge in the winter. You can usually count on seeing dozens of Northern Cardinals, Eastern Bluebirds, and Carolina Chickadees on each visit. Many of the birds are visible at the bird feeders just down the hill from the Outdoor Classroom, but others are more common in the fields than at the feeders. One of the most common birds you'll away from the feeders is the Eastern Towhee.
Though technically in the sparrow group, Eastern Towhees are often mistaken for darkly colored Robins by novice birdwatchers due to their similar coloration and size. Male Towhees are black across their backs with reddish brown sides and white bellies. Females are similar to the males in pattern and coloration except they are deep brown in the areas where the males are black. Both sexes have the broad, triangular beaks, stout bodies and long, rounded tails typical of sparrows. Once you get to know your birds, it's fairly obvious that Towhees are indeed oversized sparrows!
Towhees are most commonly found in brushy habitats and spend most of their time on the ground. They are often spotted rummaging through leaf litter to find food, uncovering tasty morsels by taking a quick hop backward while scraping back the leaves with their feet. They eat a wide variety of foods, including seeds, insects and other arthropods, and fruits and have been reported eating leaf and flower buds in the spring. They usually build their nests on the ground as well, the females choosing a protected spot under a shrub or brush pile in which to make her nest. She'll typically lay 2-6 eggs per clutch, and in the South it's possible for a single female Eastern Towhee to produce three clutches within the spring and summer breeding season.
Eastern Towhees got their name in the mid-1700's when an artist and naturalist observed the birds in the Carolinas. The name describes one of the calls that the birds make, tow-HEE! The song of the Eastern Towhee has a similarly fanciful description: drink-your-TEEEEE! Both are surprisingly descriptive of the actual sounds.
You will often see Eastern Towhees in the prairie or in the mowed areas at Prairie Ridge, especially outside the Outdoor Classroom and in the area we burned this year near the pond. Look for groups of dark, Robin-like birds and listen for their distinctive calls on your next visit. Eastern Towhees are fun birds to watch!
Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!
(Photo by Bill Thompson, used under Creative Commons license)