Living Bird Magazine
Spotted TowheePipilo maculatus
- ORDER: Passeriformes
- FAMILY: Passerellidae
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 brown), 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.More ID Info
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.
- Toquí Moteado (Spanish)
- Tohi tacheté (French)
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 out more about what this bird likes to eat and what feeder is best by using the Project FeederWatch Common Feeder Birds bird list.
- 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 a male, and at least 11 years old when he was recaught and rereleased during banding operations in California.