Spotted Towhee Life History

Habitat

Habitat ScrubSpotted 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.Back to top

Food

Food OmnivoreIn 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.Back to top

Nesting

Nest Placement

Nest GroundSpotted 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.

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.

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size:2-6 eggs
Number of Broods:1-3 broods
Egg Length:0.8-1.0 in (2-2.6 cm)
Egg Width:0.7-0.8 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.
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Behavior

Behavior Ground ForagerSpotted 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.Back to top

Conservation

Conservation Low ConcernSpotted Towhees are widespread and abundant and their numbers remained relatively stable between 1966 and 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 33 million with 79% spending some part of the year in the U.S., 23% in Canada, and 20% in Mexico. They rate an 8 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2014 State of the Birds 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.Back to top

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 out more about what this bird likes to eat and what feeder is best by using the Project FeederWatch Common Feeder Birds bird list.

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Credits

Bartos Smith, Sarah and Jon S. Greenlaw. 2015. Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Dunne, P. (2006). Pete Dunne's essential field guide companion. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, USA.

Ehrlich, P. R., D. S. Dobkin and D. Wheye (1988). The birder's handbook. A Field Guide to the natural history of North American birds, including all species that regularly breed north of Mexico. Simon and Schuster Inc., New York, USA.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2015.2. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2015.

North American Bird Conservation Initiative. 2014. The State of the Birds 2014 Report. US Department of Interior, Washington, DC, USA.

Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Sauer, J. R., J. E. Hines, J. E. Fallon, K. L. Pardieck, Jr. Ziolkowski, D. J. and W. A. Link. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, results and analysis 1966-2013 (Version 1.30.15). USGS Patuxtent Wildlife Research Center 2014b. Available from http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley guide to birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, USA.

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