Pipilo erythrophthalmus erythrophthalmus

Status:  Common regular breeder extreme southeast, rare casual elsewhere. Common regular spring and fall migrant within and near breeding range, rare elsewhere. Rare regular winter visitor extreme southeast.


Documentation:  Specimen: UNSM ZM7238, 19 Jan 1900 Saltillo, Lancaster Co.

Taxonomy:  Four subspecies are recognized (Pyle 1997): erythrophthalmus, breeding from Manitoba to Maine and south to Oklahoma and Virginia, wintering to south Texas and Florida, canaster, breeding from Louisiana to Tennessee south to South Carolina and Florida, wintering in South Carolina and Florida, rileyi, resident from Alabama and southeast Virginia to northern Florida, and alleni, resident in peninsular Florida. Nebraska birds belong to the widespread subspecies erythrophthalmus.

See https://birds.outdoornebraska.gov/spotted-x-eastern-towhee-hybrid/ for discussion of relationships in Nebraska with that species.

Spring:  Mar 23, 23, 24 <<<>>> summer

Earlier dates are 13 Mar 2016 Buffalo Co, 15 Mar 2021 Bellevue, Sarpy Co, 16 Mar 2012 Omaha, 19 Mar 2000 (2) Kearney, Buffalo Co, and 20 Mar 2016 Douglas Co. Some of these records may have been of wintering birds; earlier dates are discussed in Winter (below).

Migration peaks in late Apr-early May. Ludlow (1935) listed it as a common migrant in Webster Co, occurring in the period 5 Apr-9 May, and a specimen, HMM 2022, was taken at Inland, Clay Co 3 May 1915.

Migrants, including occasional birds that resemble phenotypically pure Easterns, are reported regularly westward to Keith Co in the Platte River Valley and northeastward through the Sandhills to northeast Nebraska near Yankton, South Dakota. A phenotypically pure silent male was at Lake McConaughy, Keith Co 21 Apr 2007, and one was in Custer Co 29 Mar 2010.

  • High counts:  24+ at Ponca SP, Dixon Co 2 May 2009, 20 at Wilderness Park, Lancaster Co 13 May 2021, 18 there 8 May 2020, and 17 at Fontenelle Forest, Sarpy Co 16 Apr 2016.

Summer: Greenlaw (Figure 2; 2020) summarized relative distributions of Eastern and Spotted Towhees; Eastern Towhee occurs predominantly in the southeast. However, as shown in figure 1, and discussed in more detail in the Spotted Towhee species account at https://birds.outdoornebraska.gov/spotted-towhee, there is considerable overlap with “spotted-backed” towhees.

Figure 1. Proportion of dark-backed towhees by “zone” based on a review of eBird reports (Silcock, unpublished data).

Reports of birds that resemble phenotypically pure Easterns near the western and northern edges of their “genetic range” (Greenlaw 2020; Zone 3 in Figure 1), include 9 Jun 2001 at Enders Reservoir, Chase Co, one that “looked and sounded” like this species at Scotts Bluff NM, Scotts Bluff Co 17 Jul 2013, a pair in Dawson Co 6 Jul 2015 and another there 13 May 2004, Thomas Co 25 Jun 2015, two singing “drink your tea” at NNF Bessey, Thomas Co 30 Jun 2019, two singing typical Eastern song there 5 Jul 2020 (eBird.org recording), 26 Jun 2015 near NNF McKelvie, Cherry Co 26 Jun, two on 14 Jun 2016 Fort Niobrara NWR, Cherry Co, and a male paired with a Spotted Towhee in Keya Paha Co 2 Aug 2009.

  • Breeding phenology:
  • Nest building: 25 Jun
    Eggs: 20 May
    Nestlings: 4 Sep
    Fledglings: 24 Jun-12 Sep

Fall:  summer <<<>>> Oct 27, 27, 27

Later dates are 30 Oct 2009 Dodge Co, 30 Oct 2013 Webster Co, 1-3 Nov 2001 Ponca SP, Dixon Co, 2-6 Nov 2018 Omaha, Douglas Co, and 16 Nov 2010 Lancaster Co.

Most depart by the end of Oct. The 26 at Two Rivers SP, Douglas Co 5 Oct was indicative of peak fall movement.

Winter: There are no documented records of overwintering, although there are at least single records for each of the winters (25 Nov-9 Mar) 2011-2012 through 2020-2021.

During the 24 years of CBCs 1991-1992 through 2015-2016, Eastern Towhees have been reported 13 different years with a total of 20 individuals.  However, only the second report for the Branched Oak Lake-Seward CBC was one on 14 Dec 2002.

Late dates for northerly locations are of one on the Norfolk CBC 17 Dec 1994, and a male at Ponca SP, Dixon Co 11 Jan 2009.

Winter 2019-2020 had a number of reports, including as many as seven on the Indian Cave SP CBC 14 Dec. Further north than usual were one in Dakota Co 25 Jan and two at Ponca SP 15 Feb, as well as one on the Ames CBC, Dodge Co 17 Dec. At least two were at Fontenelle Forest; females, possibly the same bird, were reported 27 Dec and 4 Jan, and a male 22 Feb.


CBC: Christmas Bird Count
HMM: Hastings Municipal Museum
NNF: Nebraska National Forest
NM: National Monument
NWR: National Wildlife Refuge
SP: State Park
UNSM: University of Nebraska State Museum


Photograph (top) of a Eastern Towhee at Fontenelle Forest, Sarpy Co 5 May 2011 by Phil Swanson.

Literature Cited

Greenlaw, J.S. 2020. Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.eastow.01.

Ludlow, C.S. 1935. A quarter-century of bird migration records at Red Cloud, Nebraska. NBR 3: 3-25.

Pyle, P. 1997. Identification Guide to North American Birds. Part I, Columbidae to Ploceidae. Slate Creek Press, Bolinas, California, USA.

Recommended Citation

Silcock, W.R., and J.G. Jorgensen.  2021.  Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus). In Birds of Nebraska — Online. www.BirdsofNebraska.org

Birds of Nebraska – Online

Updated 12 Jun 2021