Swiftly Spotted

The taxonomy of the spotted towhee has been a subject of debate for decades. Previously this bird and the eastern towhee were considered a single species. The spotted towhee has white spots on its primary and secondary feathers. The eastern towhee is similar in terms of its size and structure but does not have white spots.
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A writer by profession, I'm doomed to work with technology but hopeless at diagnosing any issues my computer might have. On the flip side, I have a gift for speedy bird identifications, and it was a computer glitch that ultimately helped me identify a new yard bird—the spotted towhee.

I've already forgotten whatever computer problem I was having that day (blocked it out as a horrific memory, most likely), but I'll never forget the flurry of foraging outside my office window as my computer tech guy usurped my desk. A scuffling caught my eye, and a flash of orange. Orange? The only orange bird I'd had in the yard was a black-headed grosbeak, but this bird didn't have nearly enough orange on it, and the grosbeaks don't tend to forage on the ground. This bird was decidedly a ground-forager, for there is no sky view outside my basement office window—just an eye-level patch of perpetually damp dirt under thick, low evergreens where I occasionally toss a handful of hulled sunflower seeds to give the California quail, dark-eyed juncos, and house sparrows a treat.

It only took a moment for me to know exactly what bird I was looking at—that black hood, the white flecking on the wings and back, the rich orange flanks, the white belly, and the long tail could only be the spotted towhee. Despite the dirtiness of the window—which I have convinced myself is to be sure the birds aren't confused by dangerous reflections, but nonetheless jives with my lack of desire to wash it—I even saw the red-brown eye and the characteristic double-footed backward hopping as the bird scratched in the dirt. Good thing, too, because after a few moments the towhee decided having a gawking human less than two feet away wasn't a good lunch plan, and off it went.

The spotted towhee (Pipilo maculatus) is fascinating, but despite its distinctive plumage, it can be hard to put a name to this species. The bird was known as the Arctic towhee, until the 1950s when it was lumped with its eastern cousin as the rufous-sided towhee. In the 1990s, the two were split again into the eastern towhee and the spotted towhee, distinguished by—not surprisingly—geography and plumage. To make a birder's life even more challenging, the two hybridize where their ranges overlap in the Great Plains.

The eastern towhee is the easternmost variant of this member of the sparrow family, and its black upperparts are unmarked by the white flecks that distinguish the spotted towhee. There are different races of the western birds, however, and ironically it is those along the Pacific coast—farthest from their eastern cousins—that have the fewest spots. The interior birds, and my office visitor, have much more spotting and show a pair of spotted wing bars. It is theorized that because the western species exist in more arid habitats, their spotted plumage helps them more effectively blend in with dappled sunlight.

All towhees are ground-loving birds that forage on seeds, grain, and insects, preferring to scratch among leaf litter—which I'm happy to provide, or perhaps just happy to not rake—or glean low in sheltered, shady areas. During the fall and winter, they add fleshy fruits such as blackberries to their diets. They don't tend to be big feeder visitors, but will investigate spillage—or in my case, the seed I've deliberately tossed out my office window for their benefit. A ground-level birdbath or shallow dish with fresh water can be attractive to towhees, especially if it is positioned to catch runoff from a gutter downspout so the splashing is noticed.

Because the spotted towhee really doesn't like to be spotted—it's elusive and shy—it helps to know what it isn't. It isn't as small as a song sparrow or white-crowned sparrow, and it isn't as big as an American robin or varied thrush. It isn't a walker, and it isn't a high-flier; instead, when spooked it may hop into deeper cover or fly low and rapidly to a deeper part of the thicket. That's always fun, and my neighbor gave me more than one strange look the day I spied another spotted towhee, this time in my front bushes—which I've convinced myself are overgrown so as to provide better bird shelter, but nonetheless gives me a good excuse not to bother pruning—and I was crawling to get a glimpse of a bird that just wouldn't cooperate by coming out into a nice, open spot for easy viewing.

If you do want an easy look at a spotted towhee, wait for spring, when males take to higher, more exposed perches to share their three-note drink-your-tea song and various trills. Unfortunately, my yard doesn't yet have sufficient trees to provide those perches, but that's a landscaping project I don't mind avoiding.

Away from home, I've been fortunate to spot other western towhees, including the dry-loving Abert's towhee and the colorfully capped green-tailed towhee, who, for one fleeting moment this past spring, was also a backyard visitor. I keep hoping for both towhees to return to my shady office window, and I'm diligently not window-washing, not pruning, and not raking in eager anticipation of their visits. I won't go quite so far as to break my computer to see if that's the most attractive trigger—at least not yet.

About Melissa Mayntz

Melissa Mayntz is a freelance writer and editor from Utah, naturally writing about birds. She is the about.com Guide to Birding/Wild Birds (birding.about.com), and just one week after writing this article, she spotted another spotted towhee, a juvenile, outside her—still dirty—office window.

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