Eastern Towhee belts its “Drink your tea!” song from scrubby fields, pine barrens, powerlines, and open woodlands throughout much of the East. It and Spotted Towhee were only recently split from Rufous-sided Towhee, but occupy much different ecological niches.
Eastern Towhee and many other scrub-shrub specialists are an increasing source for conservation concern. While these species probably have stable habitat in scrubby areas that occur on poor soils, such as dune scrub and pine barrens, their other habitats are more ephemeral. Early successional forests are great for towhees, Brown Thrashers, Prairie Warblers, and several other scrub-shrub birds, but all of these species are showing significant declines. Their habitat choice appears to be the key. While they may have occurred in treefalls, burned areas, and other areas of natural disturbance in the past, in more recent times they have occurred in regenerating clearcuts. The early and mid-1900s were marked by significant periods of clearcutting in the East, which created lots of towhee habitat. As those forests matured, much of their habitat disappeared.
These types of cyclical patterns in shrub-scrub birds raise important conservation questions. How should we value the mature forest relative to the successional forests? When is it more important to maintain large tracts of unbroken forest and when should forests be managed for both successional and mature forest habitats? Eastern Towhee is not at risk of disappearing anytime soon, but some of the other shrub-scrub specialists, like Golden-winged Warbler, are at much greater risk (given the compounding negative factors like Blue-winged Warbler hybridization and loss of wintering habitat). Understanding where more common species–like towhees–occur can give insight into where to look for and manage for rarer species like Golden-winged Warbler.
In the Eastern Towhee animation above it is interesting to see the region in the Southeastern United States that represents the core of the species’ year-round range. This area encompasses both pine forest areas of the Piedmont and Coastal Plain and higher areas in the Appalachians that are primarily deciduous. As with Red-headed Woodpecker, the birds spread north and west during breeding season, but in winter they seem to all concentrate in the same southern areas where they breed. With little migration away from there, it is interesting that all the northern-breeding towhees pack into these same areas where the breeders raise their young. Once we start looking at abundance with these maps too, we would expect the abundance to increase by a factor of two or more in these same areas.