Eastern Towhee in Carden

Ron Pittaway

First published in Toronto Ornithological Club Newsletter, June 2019, No 288.


Eastern Towhee on the Carden Alvar by Jean Iron


The Carden Alvar is one of the best places in Ontario to hear and see Eastern Towhees. The name "towhee" originates from the call note of this species, which sounded like tow-hee to an early naturalist.

IDENTIFICATION: The male is distinctive with its black hood and back, rufous sides, and white belly. The female is brown where the male is black. In flight the outer tail feathers flash white. The juvenile is streaked below for a short time after leaving the nest. If an adult towhee were seen feeding a streaked juvenile Brown-headed Cowbird, it might be mistaken for a juvenile towhee.

VOICE: The Eastern Towhee is most often discovered by hearing its distinctive song or call. The male’s song is a loud drink-your-teeeeea ending in a trill usually repeated every few seconds. The call note, given by the male and female, is a loud whistled che-wink usually repeated every few seconds.

HABITS: The shy towhee is normally difficult to observe except when singing. Singing males perch on a bush or near the top a sapling, but at the slightest disturbance drop into the underbrush uttering che-wink while playing hide and seek. It is often detected by its noisy scratching of dead leaves. The towhee makes a vigorous “double scratch” with both feet together kicking back the leaf litter like a Fox Sparrow to expose invertebrates and seeds.

HABITAT: Nesting habitat includes dry second growth with thickets, brushy woodland edges, and dense undergrowth in open woods. Ideal habitat has a thin layer of leaf litter on the ground for scratch feeding.

CONSERVATION: The Eastern Towhee declined about 50% from 1970 to 2014 in North America based on Breeding Bird Survey data. Plant succession is the main cause as scrublands grow into forests. Intensive farming which eliminates brushy areas and urbanization are further reducing habitat. The significant towhee population on the Carden Alvar emphasizes its importance to the conservation of this fascinating New World sparrow. However, the temporary nature of towhee habitat due to plant succession will require vegetation management to renew breeding habitat.

BEST PLACES: Wylie Road just south of the Sedge Wren Marsh is a reliable spot for towhees. Wylie Road north of the marsh to Alvar Road goes through areas of prime towhee habitat. However, it is not maintained so you are cautioned to use it at your own risk. Alternatively, there are other back roads to explore for towhees.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: I thank Michel Gosselin for proofing and Jean Iron for the photo.