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Spotted Towhee - Male

Spotted Towhee - Male

Linda Tanner

The spotted towhee and its cousin, the eastern towhee, were originally considered the same species of bird - the rufous-sided towhee. Today, however, they are recognized as individual and distinctive birds that are a pleasure for any birder to see.

Common Name:

Spotted Towhee (formerly Rufous-Sided Towhee)

Scientific Name:

Pipilo maculatus

Appearance:

  • Bill: Black, thick
  • Size: 7-8 inches long with 11-inch wingspan, long tail
  • Colors: Black, rufous, white, red, brown, gray
  • Markings: Dimorphic species. Males have a black head, throat, chest, upper back and tail. Black wings have spotted white wing bars and other white spots, which may extend onto the upper back. Outer tail feathers are white-tipped. Abdomen is white with rich rufous flanks that may be bordered by black spotting. Undertail coverts are paler rufous. Females have the same markings but are brown or gray instead of black. Both genders have bold red eyes.

Foods:

Seeds, insects, spiders, fruit, small reptiles

Habitat and Migration:

Spotted towhees are common but reclusive birds throughout the western United States in brushy forests and canyons. They can be found year round along the Pacific coast and the western mountains, while summer populations extend to Montana, Colorado, western Nebraska and the western half of the Dakotas, as well as southern central Canada. Winter populations can be found in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and northern Mexico.

Vocalizations:

The spotted towhee has several distinct songs and calls, including a sharp "pip-pip-oooooo" song that descends through the "oooooo" portion. A musical buzzing lasting less than two seconds is also a common song. Different calls include a "mew-mew" sharp chirp and a slow, rough squawk.

Behavior:

Spotted towhees are shy birds that prefer dense areas of low, brushy cover, where they will forage for insects with a double-footed scratching backward hop. In the spring and early nesting season, males sing from low perches, but never near the nest. When startled, these birds are apt to run along the ground or fly short distances to more cover rather than flush into long flights. They typically occur alone or in pairs, though small family groups are common after nesting season.

Reproduction:

These are monogamous birds that will produce two broods of 3-6 eggs each per year. The female will incubate the nest for 13 days, and both parents feed the altricial young for 10-11 days. Where both spotted and eastern towhees appear, hybrid mating is possible.

Attracting Spotted Towhees:

Though shy, spotted towhees will visit backyards that offer suitable low cover such as dense brush, brush piles or overgrown edges. Birders can also offer seeds on the ground or shredded suet to attract these birds, and leaving old leaves and other debris intact will give the birds a natural food source.

Similar Birds:

  • Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus)
  • Black-Headed Grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus)
  • Bullock's Oriole (Icterus bullockii)

Photo - Spotted Towhee - Male © Linda Tanner
Photo - Spotted Towhee - Female © Greg

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