Towhee, like bobolink, is another of those bird names that may seem to have a very obvious, standard, easy to explain pronunciation – until you actually hear the name pronounced by different birders in different areas. But which pronunciation of this type of long-tailed sparrow relative is actually correct?
There are nine towhee species in the world today (a tenth, the Bermuda towhee, is extinct), and each has a two-syllable word as the last word of its common name – towhee. But two syllables can be surprisingly diverse in how many ways it can be pronounced. It’s easiest to start with the first syllable, but there may not even be agreement as to what makes up that first syllable.
Is it tow or to?
If the three-letter “tow” is considered the first syllable, pronunciation generally rhymes with row, foe, go, low, mow, hoe, Joe, and throw. If the two-letter “to” is the first syllable, however, pronunciation may rhyme with shoe, few, cue, blue, two, mew, skew, and stew.
Just how this first syllable is pronounced also affects the second syllable in a subtle way. If the second syllable is accepted as “hee” then it most likely uses a breathy, pronounced “H” as in he, help, heft, home, hawk, Hefner, and happy. If the second syllable, however, is considered “whee” then the “H” may be silent, and only the “ee” is pronounced. In either case, the long “E” is always prominent in this syllable, and rhymes with sea, ski, flea, tea, bee, me, gee, and plea.
Putting these variations together, we have four distinct ways to pronounce what at first would have seemed like a simple bird name.
Of course, we also need to consider syllabic emphasis for proper pronunciation. In this case, nearly universal emphasis is placed on the first syllable, making this name…
Also common is an equal emphasis on each syllable, in which case neither is more prominent and both the tow/too and hee/eee syllables are even in strength.
But which pronunciation is ultimately correct? The vast majority of birders, regardless of the towhee species to which they’re referring, use the “tow” pronunciations of these birds’ names. The breathiness of the “H” can vary, however, and both the “hee” and “eee” pronunciations are relatively widespread and depend on individual preference, though the breathier “hee” is slightly more prevalent in most areas. Likewise, syllabic emphasis is split fairly evenly, with both “TOW” and “tow” having equal use among birders.
My personal pronunciation varies between “tow-hee” and “TOW-hee” using the long “oh” for the first syllable and the breathy “H” for the second. I’ve heard the name pronounced in different ways, however, but always understood which species was being discussed, identified, or named. In the end, that’s what matters most for any bird name pronunciation – communicating clearly which bird you mean, no matter how you pronounce it.