Thursday, November 14, 2013

This Week's Crops & Clips: Eastern Towhee-- the eyes have it

I grew up in New Jersey with towhees that had glowing red eyes. In fact, the earlier bird books called the species "Red-eyed Towhee."  

The light was just right to display the eye color of this Eastern Towhee in northeastern Illinois.

Eastern Towhee Close 20090813

Towhees are large-bodied members of the sparrow family. They have the habit of scratching the leaves noisily, using both feet at once. This is an Eastern Towhee male (red-eyed) that I photographed in Kane County, Illinois, in May, 2009. Notice its eyes:

Eastern Towhee 20090519

A female, its probably mate, was also seen in Illinois on the same day:

Eastern Towhee Female 20090508

Somehow I overlooked the fact that all Eastern Towhees do not have the same eye color. This male of the same species, was photographed in November, 2011 in our local south Florida wetlands. I was surprised to find that it had white irises:

Eastern (white-eyed) Towhee 3-20111123

A female was occupying the same territory that same month:

Eastern Towhee female 20111104

I learned that Eastern Towhees that breed in south Florida usually have very light eyes. They are also non-migratory, so we see them all year around. Populations to our north, into southern Georgia, show increasingly more red pigment in their iris.

This male appeared early in our neighborhood in March this year. Its eyes are a somewhat intermediate straw-yellow color:

Eastern Towhee 2-20130309

This female with yellow eyes appeared in mid-July, probably a locally breeding bird.

Eastern Towhee female 20130719

In south Florida, during the winter, it is common to see a variety of eye colors  (Male, February 29):

Eastern Towhee 4-20120229

This female, seen in south Florida on January 23, has red eyes.

Red-eyed Eastern Towhee 20111023

This juvenile Eastern Towhee, photographed in Florida this July 31, was in the company of two adults and also a juvenile Northern Cardinal that seemed to be following the towhee's parents. At first glance, its identity could be puzzling, but it is bigger and more heavily streaked than any other sparrow-billed bird.

Eastern Towhee juvenile 5-20130731

For comparison, this is the closely related Spotted Towhee of the western USA. All of this species have red eyes. I saw this one in Santa Rosa, California on June 24, 2010:

Spotted Towhee 2-20100624

Another Spotted Towhee, seen in Palo Duro Canyon, Taxas:

Spotted Towhee 2-20111112


  1. i've never seen a towhee in person. how cool that their eye color can vary!

  2. What an amazing series of shots! Interesting eye colour variations. The red is quite startling!

  3. HI Kenneth These seems to be such a variety in this bird species but I love the ones with the bright red eyes best. Great shots of them all and information to go with the post.

  4. Oh -- I didn't know that about towhees here having different colored eyes. In Oregon, they always have the red. I will watch for them here now, probably I would have thought it was a different bird! Lovely pictures.

  5. A beautiful bird. It's very interesting that the eye colour can vary.

  6. The Eastern Towhee is a beautiful bird. Great post and photos, Ken!

  7. Wow....another glorious array of some wonderful beauties!!!

  8. Beautiful serie of photos, lovely to study the details!

  9. Whatever the color, the eyes are certainly mesmerizing. Beautiful captures.

  10. Super shots!! I only got a glimpse of the eastern towhee earlier this spring. I hope I have another chance to see and photograph them.


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