Bird of the Week: Spotted Towhee

Photo by Gregg Thompson

Species: Spotted Towhee, or Pipilo maculatus

Family: Passerellidae (New World Sparrows)

Star sign: Sagittarius

Rating: 11/10

Ideal Date: Hopping and Scratching

It’s hard to tell apart species of sparrow. Many of them are about the same small size, the same shape, and have the same buff-brown feathers; when birding, such sparrows can only be distinguished by behavior and small, easy to overlook patterning differences. But not the Spotted Towhee. This week’s wonderful friend is a big boy who has a distinctive coat of black and red-orange feathers, as well as striking red eyes. Nothing like the drab brown coats of their family members. The Spotted Towhee is a special songbird, and he knows it!

One thing that Spotted Towhees share with other sparrows is the song in their hearts. When males are looking for mates, they will find a conspicuous tree perch and sing to the world for hours on end in hopes that their loud and flashy performance will attract them a lady friend. According to a study, unmated males spend 70-90% of their mornings doing nothing but belting out the tunes! Luckily, once they’ve found girlfriends they can relax, only spending 5% of their mornings singing. It’s nice that they get a break; their poor voices must be so tired after all that work!

These flashy fellows also share a method of foraging with some other sparrows known as “double-scratching,” where they use their feet to dig up dirt in search of bugs and seeds. A successful double-scratch involves two hops; first, the Towhee hops forward to build up energy, and then immediately follows that with a powerful hop backwards. During that second hop, it drags its little feet across the ground, raking away debris and uncovering potential food. The Spotted Towhee does this without any other movements of its wings or tail, and always lands on its feet. Once, a friend with an injured foot was even seen double-scratching with one foot! So coordinated — and yet so silly!

The Spotted Towhee can be found year-round here in Portland. To identify it, watch out for a robin-sized bird with a rotund body, long tail, stubby head, and sturdy wedge-shaped beak. On males the head, back and wings are jet black, and on females those areas are a slightly more subdued dark brown-grey. Its stomach is white and its sides are rufous, and it also has white spots on its wings from which it takes its name. Its eyes are a bright, gleaming red. These persistent passerines like to hop and scratch on the ground, especially under thick overgrowth, and also often climb into the lower branches of trees and bushes seeking out insects and fruit to snack on. Whether they’re singing for love or working for food, for Spotted Towhees, the grind seems to never stop. Hopefully, completing it is as fun for them as it is for us to watch!

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