Eastern Towhee vs. Spotted Towhee

Eastern Towhee vs. Spotted Towhee

The Eastern Towhee and the Spotted Towhee are two extremely similar looking birds both native to the United States. While at a quick glance they may seem difficult to distinguish from one another, there are actually a few simple ways to tell them apart.

Fun Fact: The Eastern Towhee and the Spotted Towhee used to be lumped together as a single species called the Rufous-sided Towhee. To learn more about the Eastern Towhee check out this article.

Range

While range can’t always be used to correctly determine between Eastern and Spotted Towhees, much of the time it can be. These species have ranges that typically don’t overlap, but both have been known to end up in places they aren’t normally found in.

The Eastern Towhee resides in the Eastern United States, living year round in the Southeastern states such as Florida and Georgia. During summer, many of them migrate north ending up in places like New York, Southeastern Canada, and Michigan.

Click here to see a video of Badgerland Birding searching for an Eastern Towhee in its normal range.

Eastern Towhee Range Map by sdakotabirds.com

The Spotted Towhee is a bird of the Western United States and Mexico. They winter in the south-central U.S. in states such as Texas and Oklahoma and move into the Northwestern states and Southwestern Canada to breed. Many Spotted Towhees live in Western states such as California and Oregon year round.

Click here to see a video of Badgerland Birding finding a Spotted Towhee outside of its normal range.

Spotted Towhee Range Map by sdakotabirds.com

Most of the time, range is going to be a significant factor determining which of these two species is in the area, but they do sometimes cross over to the opposite side of the country, making location a fairly reliable, but not iron clad way of telling the Spotted and Eastern Towhee apart.

Coloration

Male Eastern and Spotted Towhees both look very much alike. Both have a black back, black head, white underside, and rufous color on their sides. However, there is one major diagnostic difference; the Spotted Towhee lives up to it’s name and has white spots on its back and wings. The Eastern Towhee does have white markings on it’s back and wings but not nearly to the same degree as the Spotted Towhee.

The females of these two species look fairly different. The female Eastern Towhee has brown on its back, wings, and head, with the same rufous sides and white underside as the male. The female Spotted Towhee looks just like the male Spotted Towhee complete with white markings on the wings and back, but has more of a charcoal gray color, making it look quite different from the female Eastern Towhee.

Eastern Towhee vs. Spotted Towhee
Eastern Towhee vs. Spotted Towhee

Song

The Eastern and the Spotted Towhee have very similar calls. but with subtle differences. The Eastern Towhee sounds something akin to “drink your tea” with the first note being sharp and the rest of the call being a trill. They also make other sounds as well including a “chew-wee” or”tow-hee” call.

Eastern Towhee Call

The Spotted Towhee’s call is a lot like that of the Eastern Towhee but it can have several sharp notes before a more accentuated and somewhat faster sounding trill.

Spotted Towhee Call

Eastern Towhee summary

An adult Eastern Towhee will have the following characteristics that can be used to separate them from Spotted Towhees:

Range in the Eastern half of the United States

A mostly black back and wings with some white markings but no true “spots”

Overall brown color on the head, back, and wings of the female

A song that sounds like “drink your tea,”

Eastern Towhee
Eastern Towhee side profile

Spotted Towhee summary

An adult Sotted Towhee will have the following characteristics that can be used to separate it from an Eastern Towhee:

Range in the Western half of the United States

A black back and wings with numerous white spots

Gray color on wings, back, and head of female that looks otherwise the same as the male

A song that sounds faster and more buzzy than the Eastern Towhee with more notes at the beginning of the call

Eastern Towhee x Spotted Towhee hybrid

It’s worth noting that these two species do hybridize and can often create offspring that confuse birders. Hybrid Eastern and Spotted Towhees can be identified by the markings on the back and wings. They will have a combination of white lines, blotches, and spots. To see what one of these hybrid birds looks like you can click here.

Conclusion

At first, the Eastern Towhee and the Spotted Towhee look like very similar species. However, with a bit of knowledge on how to distinguish them, it can be a lot easier to make a positive identification.

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