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Spotted Towhee

Pipilo maculatus ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: EMBERIZIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The Spotted Towhee is a large, striking sparrow of sun-baked thickets of the West. When you catch sight of one, they’re gleaming black above (females are grayish), spotted and striped with brilliant white. Their warm rufous flanks match the dry leaves they spend their time hopping around in. The birds can be hard to see in the leaf litter, so your best chance for an unobstructed look at this handsome bird may be in the spring, when males climb into the shrub tops to sing their buzzy songs.

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Keys to identification Help

Sparrows
Sparrows
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    A large sparrow with a thick, pointed bill, short neck, chunky body, and long, rounded tail.

  • Color Pattern

    Male Spotted Towhees have jet-black upperparts and throat; their wings and back are spotted bright white. The flanks are warm rufous and the belly is white. Females have the same pattern but are warm brown where males are black. In flight, look for white corners to the black tail.

  • Behavior

    Spotted Towhees hop over the ground beneath dense tangles of shrubs, scratching in leaf litter for food. They also climb into lower branches to search for insects and fruits, or to deliver their quick, buzzy song. Towhees can fly long distances, but more often make short, slow flights between patches of cover.

  • Habitat

    Look for Spotted Towhees in open, shrubby habitat with thick undergrowth. Spotted Towhees are also at home in backyards, forest edges, and overgrown fields.

Range Map Help

Spotted Towhee Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult male

    Spotted Towhee

    Adult male
    • Black hood and white belly
    • Red eye
    • Rufous flanks and undertail
    • Prominent white spots and streaks on wings and back
    • © Chuq Von Rospach, Santa Clara County, California, April 2008
  • Adult female

    Spotted Towhee

    Adult female
    • Brownish hood and white belly
    • Rufous flanks and undertail
    • Prominent white spots and streaks on wings and back
    • Black tail with white near tip
    • © Tripp Davenport, Uvalde, Texas, January 2009
  • Adult male

    Spotted Towhee

    Adult male
    • Short, thick, pointed black bill
    • Prominent white spots and streaks on wings and back
    • Red eye
    • © Jamie Chavez, Santa Barbara County, California, September 2007
  • Adult male

    Spotted Towhee

    Adult male
    • Feeds on seeds and fruits
    • © robinsegg, Salt Lake City, Utah, December 2008
  • Adult male

    Spotted Towhee

    Adult male
    • Rufous flanks and undertail
    • © robinsegg, Salt Lake City, Utah, December 2008
  • Adult male

    Spotted Towhee

    Adult male
    • Black hood, wings, back, and tail
    • Prominent white spots and streaks on wings and back
    • Rufous flanks and undertail
    • © birdmandea, Steilacoom, Washington, November 2008
  • Adult male

    Spotted Towhee

    Adult male
    • Black, rufous, and white colors distinctive
    • Red eye
    • © cdbtx, Cascade Mountains, Washington, January 2009
  • Adult male

    Spotted Towhee

    Adult male
    • Black tail fairly long with bold white corners
    • Deep belly gives chunky appearance
    • © Steve Ting, Nevada
  • Adult male

    Spotted Towhee

    Adult male
    • Low body/ high tail posture is distinctive
    • Sturdy legs and feet for scratching for food on the ground
    • © Lois Miller, Port Orford, Oregon, February 2007
  • Adult male

    Spotted Towhee

    Adult male
    • Legs dull pink
    • White corners on tail obvious from below
    • © Terri Gueck, Abbotsville, British Columbia, Canada, February 2007

Similar Species

  • Adult male

    Bullock's Oriole

    Adult male
    • Bright orange underparts, face, and eyebrow
    • Black chin, cap, and eyestripe
    • Black back
    • Wings with large white patch and white edging
    • © Keefee, New Mexico, May 2008
  • Adult male

    Eastern Towhee

    Adult male
    • Similar to adult male Spotted Towhee
    • Clean black back (may rarely show some white markings)
    • White patch on wing
    • © Jean Kuns
  • Adult female

    Eastern Towhee

    Adult female
    • Dull brown hood, back, and wings
    • No white markings on back
    • White patch on wing
    • © Great Backyard Bird Count 2007

Similar Species

Eastern Towhees have a plain black back with no white spots or wing-bars. In the narrow part of the Great Plains where these two species overlap, people quite often find hybrids.

Backyard Tips

Spotted Towhees are likely to visit – or perhaps live in – your yard if you’ve got brushy, shrubby, or overgrown borders. If your feeders are near a vegetated edge, towhees may venture out to eat fallen seed. If you want to attract towhees to your feeders, consider sprinkling some seed on the ground, as this is where towhees prefer to feed.

Find This Bird

You can find Spotted Towhee by walking slowly along the edges of forests, thickets, and overgrown fields. Listen for the Spotted Towhee’s whiny, cat-like mew call, its rapid song, or simply any rustling the bird makes in dry leaves. Look low in shrubs or along the ground in places with rich leaf litter and dense stems.

Get Involved

Keep track of the Spotted Towhees at your feeder with Project FeederWatch

Explore sounds and video of Spotted Towhees from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Macaulay Library archive

Enhance your yard for towhees and other birds. Visit our web pages on attracting birds.

Learn more about bird photography in our Building Skills section. Then contribute your images to the Birdshare flickr site, which helps supply All About Birds and our other websites with photos.

You Might Also Like

Downloadable "Common Feeder Birds" poster from Project FeederWatch (PDF)

Find in-depth information on Spotted Towhees and all of North America's breeding birds for as little as $5 in The Birds of North America Online (Cornell Lab of Ornithology and American Ornithologists' Union).