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