You probably have to be sound asleep or partially deaf to not know when a Spotted Towhee is “in the ‘hood.” Starting this month, his frequent, rising-and-falling whine (sort like a wheezy cat’s “mew”) and trilling songs (“chup-chup-ZEEEEE!) fill the air, with the volume control set at the max. Despite his bold vocalizations, he often keeps a low profile, scurrying to the nearest shrub when humans appear and protesting loudly from there. In contrast to this skulkiness, though, a singing male often perches high on the top of a tree, showing off his striking coloration. Among the biggest members of the sparrow family, adult towhees have blackish (males) to dark gray (females) hoods, dark red eyes, striking rufous sides contrasting with a white belly, black wings dappled with numerous white spots, and distinctively long black tails that flash white corners as they fly. For nearly 40 years, taxonomists lumped the Spotted Towhee into the same species (Rufous-sided Towhee) as the unspotted Eastern Towhees found east of the Great Plains. 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 frequent a variety of brushy and scrubby habitats, ranging from riparian thickets to pinyon/juniper woodlands and well-vegetated residential areas. This towhee favors generally dry environments with dense understory, some taller trees, and ample leaf litter for ground foraging. The first Colorado Breeding Bird Atlas workers found pinyon/juniper and scrub oak areas, between 5,000 and 7,000 feet in altitude, the most frequently used breeding habitat.
As omnivores, towhees (pronounced “TOE’-ee or, by some, “TOE’-hee”) vary what they eat by season. Insects favored during breeding season include beetles, crickets, grasshoppers, caterpillars, millipedes, and, spiders. In cooler months, small seeds, acorns, and fleshy fruits make up most of their diet. They also commonly appear at bird feeders to scratch up any spilled seed or seeds scattered on the ground. When searching through leaf litter, they frequently use a characteristic two-footed, hop-back shuffle to uncover morsels from the ground.
In our area, many Spotted Towhees leave for lower elevations, although you may see one or two that linger through the winter, especially around feeders. Nesting begins in early to mid-May and generally ends by late June, although dates recorded in the Breeding Bird Atlas showed fledglings as late as late August, suggesting the birds can raise more than 1 brood. Towhees build their nests on the ground near a bush, usually some distance away from where the male sings. The clutch usually contains 3 or 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 2-foot forage shuffle.
The Spotted Towhee’s scientific name—Pipilo maculatus—quite literally means “spotted chirper” (Latin pipo, to chirp; maculatus—Latin, spotted), 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, which doesn’t sound much at all like that cat-like call 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., Spotted, Green-tailed, Canyon, Abert’s, and California—share this common name. Many who know the Eastern Towhee call refer to it nowadays as the “chewink” call. Just think—had they been named today, these birds might be known as “Spotted Chewinks.” I kind of like it!
You can read more about Spotted Towhees and hear clips of its songs and calls here: http://wp.me/P16Ptu-l8.