The eastern towhee is one of those birds that shows up erratically, and when it does show up is often overlooked. That is why a report from Thief River Falls caught my attention. Valerie Solem sent a photograph that was unmistakably an eastern towhee. A handful of other reports reached me this week, as well.
As its name implies, the eastern towhee is a bird of eastern North America. We live at the western edge of its range. That accounts for its relative scarcity here.
Yet the towhee is easily overlooked. It prefers overgrown places and is quintessentially a bird of the undergrowth. Towhees spend much of their time scratching through leaf litter on the ground.
What’s more, the towhee bears an uncanny resemblance to the American robin, and sightings may be dismissed as “just another robin.” Robins are conspicuous denizens of open grassy areas, habitat quite unlike the conditions that towhees prefer.
Finding a robin is never difficult. Robins are abundant and conspicuous.
Towhees are irregular and elusive.
Towhees betray their presence with their loud scratching. Even then they can be hard to spot in heavy cover.
Another, very similar species occurs just to the west. This is the spotted towhee, essentially identical to the eastern towhee but with more white spots on the wings.
Until recently, these were considered a single species, and older guidebooks identify both as “rufous-sided towhee,” and this is still my default name for both eastern and spotted towhee.
The birds do hybridize, and there is a kind of “zone of gradation” between the species. The zone runs through the heart of North Dakota.
Reports on eBird, an online listing maintained by Cornell University and supported by birders across the continent, demonstrates the interplay between these two species. Through Wednesday, birders this year have reported 182 eastern towhee sightings in North Dakota, most in the northeastern part of the stare, but with some as far west as Bismarck and in the extreme northwestern part of the state.
By contrast, by Thursday morning, 3,162 spotted towhees had been reported from birders in North Dakota, most of them in the western part of the state, but also in Grand Forks County.
The counts for Minnesota are dramatically opposite, with 9,941 reports of eastern towhee and 305 of western towhee. The latter were scattered across the state.
A caveat here: Minnesota has more people and hence more birders than North Dakota, but these numbers do not seem disproportionate. If anything, the reports suggest that the greatest concentration of towhees of either species occurs in western North Dakota, and indeed, the spotted towhee is an iconic bird of the Badlands. Spotted towhee calls are frequent on any quiet morning. The song is easily recognized; the bird is named for it. Likewise the towhee’s call, “Chewink.” This is a nickname often applied to both species.
Eastern towhee’s songs and call notes are similar, but the relative scarcity of the birds means they are both less often heard and less often seen.
The most likely spot to find eastern towhees in North Dakota is in Pembina County, along the Pembina River Gorge and the mixed forest and grasslands southeast of Walhalla. Jay Wessels Wildlife Management Area, maintained by the state, is a good place to look. I’ve also encountered eastern towhees in Icelandic State Park just west of Cavalier.
Eastern towhees meet their spotted western cousins in this area, and hybrids occur, with the eastern gene pool dominating. Farther west, the opposite is true. The western gene pool dominates, resulting in two similar but slightly different hybrids – giving North Dakotans a chance at four different towhee “varieties.”
In Minnesota, the occurrence of spotted towhees is probably casual, and the eastern towhee is much more common. Its range extends northwestward across the state essentially following the transition zone between prairie and Northwoods. In other words, look for eastern towhees “where the prairie meets the pines,” a kind of habitat that’s common in northwestern Minnesota.
Towhees are relatives of sparrows, and the sparrow migration continues in our area, though it appears to be waning.
Reports this week indicate that Baltimore orioles are back, and so are ruby-throated hummingbirds.
The number of yellow-rumped warblers has begun to grow – a harbinger of the next wave of migrants, the warbler clan.
Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at email@example.com.