When I started working at the wildlife rehabilitation center 15 years ago, I knew nothing about wildlife rehab. But as a birder, I knew birds and their habitats. The staff knew a lot about healing birds but they weren’t birders. So when they asked me to check on a Spotted Towhee they were worried about in an outside aviary, I headed right out. The towhee was cowering in the corner of the large enclosure set up for typical songbirds—lots of perches off the ground, food available on branches and elevated shelves, hanging sprays of millet. Since towhees are skulky ground feeders, this place was definitely not prime towhee habitat. With some low potted shrubs to partition off a section of the large open floor, I created a half circle and scattered dead leaves and timothy hay in the center. With twigs and small branches, I built a brush pile in a nearby corner. I tossed seeds lavishly on the ground under the shrubs, in the leaf litter, and over the brush pile. Checking back a couple of hours later, I couldn’t see him. But I smiled when I heard, coming from the brush pile, his rising-and-falling call note (sort of like a wheezy cat’s “mew”) and the distinctive scratchy, two-footed, hop-back shuffle towhees use for finding seeds. A towhee being a towhee. My work here was done.
Indeed, Spotted Towhees usually keep a low profile, scurrying to the nearest shrub when humans approach and protesting loudly from there. In contrast to this skulkiness, though, a singing male in breeding season often perches on the top of a tall bush, showing off his striking coloration. His call note and dry trilling song (“chup-chup-ZEEEEE!) fill the air, with the volume control set at the max. Locally, Spotteds may skip the introductory notes of the song and go straight to the trill.
Among the biggest member of the sparrow family, an adult Spotted Towhee has a blackish (males) or dark gray (females) hood, dark red eyes, striking rufous sides contrasting with a white belly, black wings dappled with numerous eponymous white spots, and a distinctively long black tail that flashes white corners as the bird flies away. For nearly 40 years, taxonomists lumped the Spotted Towhee and the not-so-spotted Eastern Towhee (found east of the Great Plains) into an overarching species of Rufous-sided Towhee. But differences in songs, plumage, habitat preferences, and other aspects convinced the taxonomists that they are indeed separate species. At least for now.
Spotted Towhees rank among the most common birds—perhaps the most common bird—of the chaparral. A year-round resident, this towhee is just as prevalent in the understory of riparian, oak, coniferous woodland, and well-vegetated residential areas but much scarcer where the shrubs are sparser, as in sage scrub. Spotteds favor generally dry environments with dense understory, a few taller trees, and ample leaf litter for ground foraging.
As omnivores, towhees (pronounced “TOE-ee or, by some, “TOE-hee”) vary what they eat by season. Animal matter favored during breeding season includes insects (beetles, crickets, grasshoppers, caterpillars) and litter arthropods (e.g., millipedes, sowbugs, spiders). In cooler months, plant matter such as small seeds, acorns, and fleshy fruits make up most of the bird’s diet. Towhees also frequent bird feeders to scratch up any seeds scattered on the ground. When searching through leaf litter, they frequently use a characteristic two-footed, backward shuffle to uncover morsels from the ground.
Spotted Towhees usually nest on the ground, concealing the nest in leaf litter or under low-growing plants or clumps of grass. The female begins laying by early April with nesting season continuing into July. The clutch usually contains 3−4 eggs; incubation takes 12−14 days; and both adults feed nestlings once they have hatched. Fledglings leave the nest after a short 9−11 days, typically unable to fly upon first fledging. Both parents continue to feed the young for another 30 days or so, as the youngsters perfect their flying skills and that diagnostic characteristic forage shuffle.
The Spotted Towhee’s scientific name—Pipilo maculatus—quite literally means “spotted chirper” in Latin (maculatus—“spotted”; pipo, “to chirp”), referring to the bright white spots on the wings and its incessant vocalizations. The unusual common name of “towhee” is an onomatopoetic representation of the call of the Eastern Towhee, an upward slurred, buzzy ”TWEE”, which doesn’t sound much like that cat-like call or dry trilling song of our Spotted Towhees. But the Eastern Towhee was the first in the genus to be named, so all of the other towhee species—in the U.S., those are California, Spotted, Green-tailed, Canyon, and Abert’s—share this common name. Many who know the Eastern Towhee call refer to it nowadays as the “chewink” call. Just think—had these birds been named today, Pipilo maculatus might be known as “Spotted Chewinks.” Missed opportunity or bullet dodged—you be the judge.