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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.

Birds of North America Online
ML Essential Set

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
6.7–8.3 in
17–21 cm
Wingspan
11 in
28 cm
Weight
1.2–1.7 oz
33–49 g
Relative Size
About a third again bigger than a Song Sparrow and twice as heavy. Smaller than a robin.
Other Names
  • Tohi tacheté (French)
  • Chouís, Toquí de Socorro (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Watch a Spotted Towhee feeding on the ground; you'll probably observe its two-footed, backwards-scratching hop. This "double-scratching" is used by a number of towhee and sparrow species to uncover the seeds and small invertebrates they feed on. One Spotted Towhee with an unusable, injured foot was observed hopping and scratching with one foot.
  • The Spotted Towhee and the very similar Eastern Towhee used to be considered the same species, the Rufous-sided Towhee. The two forms still occur together in the Great Plains, where they sometimes interbreed. This is a common evolutionary pattern in North American birds – a holdover from when the great ice sheets split the continent down the middle, isolating birds into eastern and western populations that eventually became new species.
  • Early in the breeding season, male Spotted Towhees spend their mornings singing their hearts out, trying to attract a mate. Male towhees have been recorded spending 70 percent to 90 percent of their mornings singing. Almost as soon as they attract a mate, their attention shifts to other things, and they spend only about 5 percent of their time singing.
  • Spotted Towhees live in drier habitats than Eastern Towhees. Some scientists have suggested that the bold white spots on Spotted Towhees’ backs help them blend in to the sun-dappled undergrowth.
  • The oldest recorded Spotted Towhee was 10 years 8 months old.

Habitat


Scrub

Spotted Towhees are birds of dry thickets, brushy tangles, forest edges, old fields, shrubby backyards, chaparral, coulees, and canyon bottoms, places with dense shrub cover and plenty of leaf litter for the towhees to scratch around in.

Food


Omnivore

In the breeding season, Spotted Towhees eat mainly insects including ground beetles, weevils, ladybugs, darkling beetles, click beetles, wood-boring beetles, crickets, grasshoppers, caterpillars, moths, bees, and wasps. Other leaf-litter arthropods such as millipedes, sowbugs, and spiders are taken as well. They also eat acorns, berries, and seeds including buckwheat, thistle, raspberry, blackberry, poison oak, sumac, nightshade, chickweed, and crops such as oats, wheat, corn, and cherries. In fall and winter, these plant foods make up the majority of their diet.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–6 eggs
Number of Broods
1-3 broods
Egg Length
0.8–1 in
2–2.6 cm
Egg Width
0.7–0.7 in
1.7–1.9 cm
Incubation Period
12–13 days
Nestling Period
10–12 days
Egg Description
White, gray, green, or pinkish, spotted with reddish brown, purple or gray.
Condition at Hatching
Naked except for sparse tufts of grayish down, eyes closed, clumsy.
Nest Description

The female builds the nest beginning with a framework of dry leaves, stems, and bark strips. She lines this with an inner cup of fine, dry materials such as grasses, rootlets, pine needles, and hair. The finished nest is about 4.5 inches across, with an inner cup 2.5-4 inches across and about 2.5 inches deep. Ground nests are built into depressions so that the nest rim is at the soil surface or only slightly above it.

Nest Placement

Ground

Spotted Towhees place their nests either on the ground or near it (though occasionally up to 12 feet high). They often choose fairly exposed areas over sites deep inside a thicket, but within these areas they find a clump of grass, a log, or the base of a shrub to conceal their nests against.

Behavior


Ground Forager

Spotted Towhees rummage in the leaf litter or creep through thick shrubs. Towhees tend to hop wherever they go, moving deliberately and giving themselves plenty of time to spot food items. They scratch at leaves with a characteristic two-footed backward hop, then pounce on anything they’ve uncovered. During conflicts between two towhees, you may see one bird pick up a piece of twig, bark, or leaf and carry it around. This seems to be an indication of submission. Disturbed or alarm-calling towhees flick their wings while perched, sometimes flashing the white corners in the tail.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Spotted Towhees are widespread and abundant and their numbers remained stable between 1966 and 2010, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 33 million with 79 percent spending some part of the year in the U.S., 23 percent in Canada, and 20 percent in Mexico. They rate an 8 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2012 Watch list. Development creates more of their preferred shrubby, open habitat, but in these areas they are also vulnerable to predation by cats. Forms on a few islands off California and Mexico may be affected by habitat loss or overgrazing.

Credits

Range Map Help

Spotted Towhee Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Resident or short-distance migrant.

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.

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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).