How Does the Towhee Call and Song Sound?

types of towhee birds
Six subspecies of Towhee are peppered throughout North America, and most of them all have similar calls. Most have a chewink or mewing cat call, as well as a variation of the call' drink-your-tea,' followed by an extended trill.

The call of the Towhee differs from habitat to species, but all carry a similar version of the drink-your-tea melody. The first two or three notes of the drink your tea melody are often sharp with metal clanking quality, followed by a very long trill. Depending on the subspecies of Towhee, some emphasize the ‘you’re’ in drink-your-tea, while others (like the spotted towhee) drop this syllable altogether. 

Similar to sparrows, towhees are a member of the Passerellidae family. They are slightly larger than your average house sparrow (but smaller than an American robin) and have a unique birdsong. Their slight variation in vocalizations makes it challenging to tell the difference. But, don’t worry, the different species of towhees do not live in the same area.

Eastern towhees and spotted towhees are among the most widespread subspecies of Towhee, but they live on opposite sides of North America. If you think you hear the call of a towhee, telling the difference between the various species boils down to checking out where you are on the map! So, let’s break down the different sounds of a few species of towhee and figure out what they are saying. 

How Many Species of Towhee Are There?

There are six species of North American Towhees. These various species include:

  • Eastern Towhee
  • Spotted Towhee
  • Abert’s Towhee
  • California Towhee
  • Green-Tailed Towhee
  • Canyon Towhee

Of these six unique species of Towhee, some are only found with-in a small range. Abert’s towhee, for instance, is only found in certain sections of Arizona. If you hear a variation of a towhee call, odds are it’s an Eastern towhee, a spotted towhee, or a California towhee. Because some species of Towhee are so rare, this article focuses on the more populous species of Towhee and their unique bird calls.

eastern towhee
Eastern towhee

What is the Call of the Eastern Towhee?

While birders note Eastern towhees by their red eyes, you will likely hear their bright and cheery drink-your-tea song before spotting them perched on a shrub’s hidden branch or around the base of the bird feeder. 

Song

The Eastern towhee (or Pipilo erythrophthalmus) song sounds like drink-your-tea with a long trill at the end. Their call may sound like a mating call because it’s loud and proud, but it’s a male call to defend its nesting location. Male Eastern towhees perch on a high branch of a tree and emit their loud call to send a message to other birds to stay away.

Eastern towhee’s classic “Drink-your-tea” call

During courtship, the drink-you-tree call is much quieter, and almost sounds like a whisper song. Eastern towhees blends courtship calls with mating dances where a male chases a female and spreads its wings to show off its impressive white spots on its upper parts.

Eastern towhee “Chewink” call

Alarm Call

The Alarm call of the Eastern towhee is made by both males and females and sounds like a high-pitched chewink vocalization that crescendos in pitch. This frantic call indicates that someone spotted a predator, and other birds should take cover. They also have a rapid-fire tic call when fleeing or chasing off predators.

spotted towhee
Spotted towhee

What is the Call of the Spotted Towhee?

Spotted towhee look very similar to Eastern towhees, but they live in very different places in North America. Eastern towhees are more prominent in the east (especially in New York), while Spotted towhees are only found on the east coast as far east as the Rocky Mountains. While they look similar, there are critical differences in their songs.

Song

The Spotted towhee (or Pipilo maculatus) call sounds very similar to Eastern towhee’s drink-your-tea call with a few distinct changes. It has a much more precise and sharper tone than other towhees and composes their songs with two-eight syllables followed by an extended trill at the end. Most Spotted towhee’s songs include more extended drawn-out intro notes, while others drop the introduction straight for the long trill.

Spotted towhee “drink-your-tea” call with dropped intro notes and trill

It’s also important to note that the spotted towhee and the rufous-sided towhee were once considered the same bird. They share very similar chewink and mating calls, making it difficult to distinguish by call alone.

Spotted towhee’s contact or alarm call

Alarm Call

When startled, Spotted towhee’s alarm call sounds are catlike in quality and sound like the mewing of a cat. The alarm call comes in short and sharp bursts that last only a second and are used to warn of predators or scolding broods of young birds. While the mewing alarm call is used for danger, it’s sometimes used as a contact call between other towhees while foraging for food or building a nest.

california towhee
California towhee

What is the Call of the California Towhee? 

The California towhee is the rarest of the towhee in the Passerellidae family and only live in a tiny sliver of the east coast in California and some parts of Mexico. They look very different from other towhees and have unique birdsong and contact calls.

Song

Unlike other species of towhee, the California towhee sounds more like a California ground squirrel or a cardinal. Their calls sound almost metallic, with short, rapid-fire trills at the beginning of their song and two chirps at the end. Since this bird species like to hide in thickets, birders often hear the California towhee before spotting it hiding in the brush.

California towhee metallic song

Their song is often heard by two mated pairs (who sometimes pair for life) that communicate using their trills and chewinks to note nesting location, food sources, or just as a way to locate each other.

California towhee “Cheep” call

Alarm Call

The Alarm call of the California towhee sounds similar to their mating and contact calls, only louder and faster. When mating or communicating, they sing their birdsong for only a few seconds. However, when they are alerted of a predator, their song triples in frequency and pitch.

What Type of Towhee Song is in Your Backyard?

Spotting the difference between towhee’s proves to be a bit of a challenge amount bird watchers because their songs are all very similar. Since the habitats of the six different species of Towhee don’t often overlap, the place you are in North America is your biggest clue on the species of Towhee that you hear.

For instance, if you live in New York and hear the drink-your-tea melody, odds are it’s an Eastern Towhee based upon your location!

Vianna Arenas

Vianna Arenas is a lifetime songbird enthusiast and nature lover. An avid backyard birdwatcher, Vianna loves gardening and creating a backyard oasis for the wildlife native to her home state of Texas. When she’s not camping or hiking with her family, she can be found sewing critter bags for orphaned wildlife.

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