Eastern Towhee: Can the white-eyed subspecies survive even 1.5C climate change?

Pale-eyed and red-eyed forms diverged approximately 18,000 years ago.
Photo by Melissa James/Macauley Library.
eBird abundance map for Eastern Towhee. It is resident in the southeast, but expands north in summer.

The Eastern Towhee, a bird of scrub and thickets, is a common resident in the southeast United States. One subspecies migrates north in summer.

They are a prime example of a species that is considered “Least Concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), but “High Risk” in National Audubon’s assessment of birds under climate change. In their 3.0 C scenario, they predict it would lose 83% of its current breeding range, while gaining only 23%.

This is National Audubon’s projection for the Eastern Towhee’s breeding range under just a 1.5C scenario. This would spell extinction for the white-eyed birds of Florida and the deep South.
Their winter range is not anticipated to change much.

These projections are consistent with recent literature showing poleward shifts of species ranges– of the northern edge of their range, of the southern edge, and of their range’s geographic center. The predictions for Eastern Towhee are among the most dramatic.

Recent research also suggests that non-migratory and short-distance migrants are more adaptable to climate change than are long-distance migrants, and more able to shift their ranges. Indeed, we are already seeing that with Eastern Towhee. The Audubon projections appear to be in progress.

Based on Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) data, the Eastern Towhee breeding population in Florida has declined over 50% since the late 1990s. The timing of this is consistent with worldwide ecological shifts which began in the mid-1980s.

The white-eyed subspecies appears to be already in trouble. eBirders in Florida in May and June are encountering the species half as often as they were just six years earlier.

eBird data from Florida, focusing on frequency of lists reporting the species during the May-June period, shows that the maximum frequency has fallen from 18.3% in 2015 to 8.6% in 2021.

Not all range shifts are due to climate. As a scrub specialist, the Eastern Towhee prefers habitat that is in the act of regrowth, such as after a fire or being cleared. But they don’t want a forest either. To quote the Birds of the World species account for Eastern Towhee: “As farmland is abandoned, successional changes produce suitable midseral habitats that towhees favor, and their numbers increase. But, successional time is against towhees, and their numbers decrease as seres age.” That may be the explanation for the Georgia data (orange dots), which show a decline in the late 60s and early 70s, possibly due to forest growth or land clearance for development, and then a leveling off.  

As the climate warms, many species are expanding north and/or declining in the southern part of their range. But these need not happen simultaneously. Opportunities for suitable habitat may open doors in the north, and doors may close in the south, at different times. There is evidence of Eastern Towhee expansion in Minnesota, but look at the vertical axis; it does not compare with the losses in Florida.

In Florida, the white-eyed subspecies faces extinction based on National Audubon’s 1.5C scenario. They appear to have declined dramatically in the past two decades.

Photo from National Audubon website that provides range change projections under 1.5C, 2.0C, and 3.0C scenarios.

For more on climate change impacts on birds, I invite you to join the Birds and Climate Change Facebook group.

3 thoughts on “Eastern Towhee: Can the white-eyed subspecies survive even 1.5C climate change?

  1. Besides being an interesting subject, I love maps and those here are gems. I live in southern Ontario and I don’t think I’ve ever seen an Eastern Towhee, but I’m going to watch for them now.

    Like

  2. Pingback: eBird Trends maps reveal dramatic northward range shifts in Eastern species | The Cottonwood Post

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