Meet the Towhees: The Birds Scratching Up a Storm in your Backyard
Look down! That noise under your shrubs is a shy, ground-feeding towhee in search of its next meal.
When dry leaves rustle beneath your shrubs, you may think it’s a fidgety squirrel at first, but look closer. If you hear an odd, sharp call through the noise, a towhee may be responsible for the racket. Crouch down low and peer through the dense branches to catch a glimpse of this secretive visitor.
A little larger than their sparrow relatives, towhees spend a lot of time on the hunt for seeds and insects by scratching at dry leaf litter on the ground. You might assume that a bird stands on one foot and scratches with the other, but towhees have their own approach: They jump in the air and kick backward with both feet, sending dry leaves flying and exposing their favorite foods.
Anywhere in the eastern half of the U.S., scratching sounds that come from under dense thickets could reveal the presence of an eastern towhee. Males of this species are mostly black and white while females are mostly brown and white, but they both show a wide stripe of reddish brown, or rufous, along the side of the body.
Eastern types thrive in second-growth woods, overgrown fields or tall forest edges, but they show up in backyards that have low, dense bushes. Listen for their sharp, ringing call, which sounds like chewink (or, if you use your imagination, towhee). Their song is a musical drink-your-tea.
The western half of the country is the spotted towhee’s territory. It looks a lot like its eastern cousin and chooses similar habitats, but it has extra white spots on its back. Another difference is the calls and songs. Those of western towhees are much more variable.
Two of the plainest brown birds in North America are the canyon towhee of the Southwest and the California towhee of California and Oregon. These two were once considered one species, called brown towhee, but their voices are completely different. What they lack in bright colors they make up for with personality. They live in pairs year-round, and the male and female both defend their nesting territory, loudly chasing away other towhees. And although the male does most of the actual singing, both members of the pair sing squealing, chattering duets together several times a day.
California towhees live near the Pacific coast in gardens, where they scurry across patios and bustle under hedges. Canyon towhees tend to live in the more wild country of foothills and canyons, but they come into the suburbs of some Southwestern cities, like Albuquerque.
There’s a third relative, called Abert’s towhee, with a very limited range. It lives along rivers and streams in Arizona and southeastern California, barely extending into the edges of other nearby states. Along wild rivers it can be very shy and hard to see. But in recent years some Abert’s towhees have adapted to living around people, and they have become common garden birds in some parts of Phoenix and Yuma, Arizona.
Just a little smaller than other towhees, the green-tailed towhee is mostly a western bird. It spends the summer in mountain forests, and for the winter it migrates to dense thickets along rivers and streams in the Southwest. As its name suggests, it has yellow-green on the tail as well as on the wings and back. However, you’re more likely to notice its rusty-red forehead—especially since it often raises those forehead feathers in a perky crest. The most common call note of this towhee is a soft mew that sounds like a kitten in the shrubbery.
Even though the green-tailed towhee is typical of the West, it occasionally wanders far eastward and has even shown up at feeders on the Atlantic coast. Spotted towhees also stray east at times, and the eastern towhee occasionally drifts out west. So the next time you hear mysterious rustling coming from your shrubs, see if a towhee chose to visit your yard.
3 Easy Ways to Attract Towhees
- Habitat. Keep shrub branches low and allow dry leaves to accumulate under them.
- Food. Serve quality seed, like white proso millet. But don’t be surprised if towhees prefer to forage on the ground.
- Water. Put out a ground-level birdbath with a dripper or source of moving water.