First published August 1, 2015... Contact Hart at

This Eastern Towhee is of the red-eyed clan, unlike his white-eyed cousin, below right.

Red-eyed – White-eyed

A red-eye is a flight that one takes late at night to arrive at a distant destination early the next morning; or red eyes can appear in some photos of persons when flash is used; or it’s an alcoholic drink that if imbibed sufficiently produces red eyes; or red eyes sometimes occur when one gets insufficient sleep after imbibing too much red-eye. Conversely, White-eyes is a family of birds in Africa and Asia that don’t actually have white eyes, but do have a large white ring around their eyes, but there are no members of this family in North America. However, every graduate of elementary school remembers the Bunker Hill cry, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” Of course, the patriots were assuming the British soldiers had not stayed up late the previous night drinking too much red-eye, as they later did at Trenton that Christmas eve when Washington crossed the Delaware. (All right, before you send me your corrections, I remember they were Hessian mercenaries in Trenton.)

But when it comes to native birds in North America there is only one species of each with the name modifier “Red-eyed” or “White-eyed” and they are both Vireos. And both the Red-eyed Vireo, below right, and White-eyed Vireo, below left, breed widely across eastern North America, with the Red-eyed wintering in South America, and the White-eyed wintering in the southern states, Mexico and the Caribbean. White-eyed Vireos are easy to find in Florida in the winter. Both species are named for the actual color of their eyes, and not for the color of a ring around their eyes.

However, Eastern Towhees can be found with both red eyes and white eyes, depending on where you find them. In the greatest part of their range, throughout most of the United States and Canada east of the Mississippi, Eastern Towhees have red eyes. But in parts of the Southeast, and particularly Florida, Eastern Towhees have white eyes.

When it comes to naming species of birds, and all other biological organisms for that matter, there has long been a swinging of the pendulum back and forth between the “lumpers” and the “splitters.” Ever since the time of Charles Darwin scientists have struggled with the definition of what characteristics qualify as a separate species. “Lumpers” held that species that were able to interbreed, even though differences could be observed, should be lumped into one species. “Splitters” argued that if differences are obvious, then separate species status should be awarded. One frequently used example featured the difference between Yellow-shafted Flickers and Red-shafted Flickers. While the two species differences were obvious in their feathers, andthe males had different color “mustaches” - black in the Yellow-shafted, and red in the Red-shafted, the two species interbred and created “intergrades” in the narrow areas where their two ranges overlapped. “Splitters” reigned supreme for years and the two were separate species, even though “Lumpers” maintained that they were one and the same species, only with “phase” or “morph” or “sub-species” differences. However, “Lumpers” ultimately prevailed, and the two are now known as the Northern Flicker.

Same thing happened with Towhees. Prior to 1957 there were three similar species of Towhees: the Red-eyed Towhee; the White-eyed Towhee; and the Spotted Towhee, male and juvenile left, whose range is western United States and Canada. In 1957 the three were lumped into one species: the Rufous-sided Towhee. However, with the development of DNA analysis, the whole argument of “lumpers” versus “splitters” became pretty well moot as scientists were able to conclusively determine which versions were truly deserving of full species status. Consequently, in the early 1990’s the Rufous-sided Towhee was finally split into the Spotted Towhee, and the Eastern Towhee, which includes both the red-eyed and white-eyed versions. That’s where we stand today, but who knows what new biological technology will come down the road in the future and cause further “splitting,” or further “lumping” for that matter.

Ah, but the bird’s eye color does not change regardless of what it is doing. It is we humans who have the ability to change the whites of our eyes to red, albeit usually unintentionally, by drinking too much or sleeping too little, not to mention allergies. And red eyes in birds are quite attractive; in humans, not so much.

For more on “lumpers” and “splitters,” see; and Perhaps the best discussion on the topic that I have seen is in Scott Weidensaul’s excellent book on bird migration, Living on the Wind, at pages 166 – 168.

Eastern Towhees, female, with red (left) and white eyes

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