08.07.22: Towhee in shadows

A female Eastern Towhee perches in the shadows in Sharon Woods Metro Park, Westerville, Ohio.

A female Eastern Towhee perches in the shadows in Sharon Woods Metro Park, Westerville, Ohio.

Towhees frequently heard, not seen

Tech specs

  • Date/time: Apr 24, 2016 10:09 AM   
  • Camera: Canon EOS 7D Mark II
  • Lens: EF600mm f/4L IS USM +1.4x 
  • Focal length: 840mm
  • Aperture: f/5.6
  • Shutter: 1/1000 second
  • ISO: 1250

With some bird species, it’s all but impossible to tell a male from a female when the bird is perched nearby. The plumage of a male is pretty much identical to the plumage of a female. Song Sparrows, Blue Jays, Titmice, Chickadees and Cedar Waxwings are among the many varieties of birds that fit this description.

With some other species, the male and female are very similar but the female’s plumage color is more muted, or the female lacks one marking visible on the male. Eastern Bluebirds and Dark-eyed Juncos are species with more muted plumage on female birds. With many woodpecker varieties the females lack a red patch visible on the males.

Then there are bird species where the males and females look very different. One obvious example is the Northern Cardinal, where the male is bright red and the female is a yellow-brown or olive color.

The Eastern Towhee fits in the last category.

Towhees are members of the sparrow family, although they are larger than the typical sparrow. The males are black on top with brownish-orange sides and white underneath. Female towhees, like the one above, have a rich chocolate brown on top instead of the black feathers found on the males.

The Eastern Towhee is an example of a bird that is heard but often not seen.

I have a small collection of photos of Eastern Towhees in my files, even though I hear the towhee’s song just about every time I go into the woods. The song sounds like the bird is saying “tow-hee” or “drink your tea,” with the emphasis on the last syllable. So knowing the bird is nearby isn’t the issue.

Seeing it is a different matter. Towhees spend most of their time on the ground, looking for food in the underbrush or concealed in thick growth of bushes. They pop into the open occasionally to sing, but the view of this open space is often obscured by tree limbs or leaves.

That makes capturing clear photos of towhees difficult.

I found this female towhee at the edge of the woods on an April morning in Sharon Woods Metro Park north of Columbus, Ohio. I heard it rummaging through fallen leaves in the shadows, but it stayed hidden in the underbrush. That made it difficult to photograph.

I was about to give up and move on when the bird emerged from the underbrush and popped up on a fallen branch, blending with the brighter background. It seemed to pose for a few seconds, just long enough for me to get a photo. Then it hopped back into the underbrush. 

I have a small collection of photos of Eastern Towhees in my files, even though I hear the towhee’s song just about every time I go into the woods. The song sounds like the bird is saying “tow-hee” or “drink your tea,” with the emphasis on the last syllable. 

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