- Minnesota Breeding Bird Distribution
- Breeding Habitat
- Population Abundance
- Literature Cited
A regular breeding resident and migrant; occasionally overwinters. The Eastern Towhee was an uncommon species during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (MNBBA).
The Eastern Towhee is broadly distributed across the eastern United States, extending north into Canada but limited to the southern regions of the eastern provinces. It is a summer resident in the northern states but a permanent resident further south. Eastern Towhees reach their highest breeding densities in the southeastern United States, extending north into the southern Appalachians (Figure 1).
Assigned a Continental Concern Score of 11/20 by Partners in Flight; designated a Species in Greatest Conservation Need by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
A short-distance migrant that winters in the southeastern United States. In recent years, an increasing number of birds have lingered in the northern states into the winter months, some remaining the entire winter at feeding stations or in habitats that provide adequate food resources.
An omnivorous ground feeder and occasional foliage gleaner.
An open-cup nest placed on the ground, nestled within the ground litter and often located under a small shrub; occasionally it is placed within a low bush or in a tangle of vegetation less than 2 m from the ground.
A bird with many identities, the Eastern Towhee was known as the Red-eyed Towhee in the early twentieth century and the Rufous-sided Towhee until 1995. Biologists then separated the western form of the species, the Spotted Towhee, into a distinct species. Other common names included Ground Robin, in reference to its ground-nesting and ground-foraging habits, and Chewink, a phonetic interpretation of its distinctive call note. Roberts (1932) knew the bird as the Red-eyed Towhee and described it as a statewide summer resident. Nesting was confirmed (nests with eggs) in 6 counties that stretched from Wabasha County in the southeast north to Hennepin, Ramsey, and Sherburne Counties and then north to Crow Wing and Marshall Counties. A nest with eggs was also reported at Cass Lake and nesting was inferred (young out of nest and adult carrying food) in Itasca County, Itasca State Park, and in the vicinity of Lake Mille Lacs. There also were summer reports of the birds in Aitkin County (1930), along the Iron Range (as of 1906), and along the Canadian border.
By the late 1920s, Roberts noted a significant decline in the statewide population. “The Towhee was formerly an abundant bird in all suitable places but has decreased greatly in numbers in recent years and is now common only locally.” He attributed the decline, in part, to increasing development but believed it didn’t fully account for the decrease he was observing. Plenty of suitable habitat still appeared to be available. Because it is a ground-nesting bird, Roberts lamented that “many stray cats and dogs, the inevitable accompaniment of civilization, may be a factor in the partial disappearance of this and other ground-nesting birds.”
Accounts written by both Green and Janssen (1975) and Janssen (1987) reflect nearly an identical statewide distribution as that delineated by the nesting records enumerated by Roberts in the early 1900s. The Eastern Towhee remained largely absent from northeastern Minnesota and the entire western region of the state. Janssen’s distribution map identified only 4 counties where nesting had been confirmed since 1970: Anoka, Dakota, Hubbard, and Washington. Hertzel and Janssen (1998) later added four more counties to the list: Brown, Crow Wing, Houston, and Scott.
By the time the Minnesota Biological Survey (MBS) was underway in the late 1980s, the towhee’s distribution had made some notable changes. Reporting a total of 280 breeding season locations, the MBS uncovered numerous records within the Minnesota River valley as far west as Yellow Medicine County and several reports in the Prairie Coteau region of southwestern Minnesota. Numerous records also were documented in the Tallgrass Aspen Parklands Province in far northwestern Minnesota (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 2016).
MNBBA participants reported 485 Eastern Towhee detections in 5.5% (260/4,737) of the surveyed atlas blocks and in 7.1% (167/2,337) of the priority blocks. Breeding evidence was documented in 14 blocks (Figures 2 and 3; Table 1). The towhee was reported in 55 of Minnesota’s 87 counties (numerous blocks in the upper Minnesota River valley straddled counties on both sides of the river) and were documented breeding in 11 counties. Of the list published by Hertzel and Janssen in 1998, 6 counties were additions: Becker, Goodhue, Le Sueur, Nicollet, Sherburne, and Wabasha (1 confirmed breeding block straddled Nicollet and Le Sueur Counties).
The towhee’s MNBBA distribution was quite similar to that documented by the MBS, with the addition of numerous records in east-central Minnesota (Chisago, Isanti, Kanabec, and Ramsey Counties), the Twin Cities metropolitan region, and in west-central Minnesota (Kandiyohi, Meeker, and Pope Counties). Records were even found as far north as Lake of the Woods County.
Although the towhee may have been very common in Aitkin County in the 1930s, it was rare to absent throughout much of northeastern Minnesota and the north-central counties of Koochiching and Itasca. Formerly considered absent in the southwest and west-central regions, scattered records are now present from all but the most intensively cultivated regions of south-central Minnesota and the Red River valley. In Wisconsin, the Eastern Towhee also was considered an abundant species in the early 1900s. Although still widespread, Robbins (1991) reported that it remained abundant only in a few localities (Cutright et al. 2006). In Michigan, however, its breeding distribution has changed little since the early 1900s (Chartier et al. 2013). Local changes elsewhere throughout the species’ range are largely attributed to landscape changes, primarily the loss of the towhee’s preferred shrub habitat to development and agriculture.
*Note that the definition of confirmed nesting of a species is different for Breeding Bird Atlas projects, including the definition used by the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas, compared with a more restrictive definition used by the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union. For details see the Data Methods Section.