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Spotted Towhee

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Competing with the Chipmunks

The English language is an interesting phenomenon. I use that term simply because it best describes this strange tongue that we call our own. If you’ve ever conducted a brief study of the English language or have had the opportunity to study another language—using your native language as a point of reference—you soon discover that English is a linguistic wonder. Meaning, I wonder how it even works! Not only does it lack many true tenses, it is basically a collection of idiomatic expressions—expressions that don’t sit still. Is there a language on earth that changes as rapidly as English? It is sick! (By the way, nowadays that means “cool.”)

And the birding world has not been exempt from this mania of word evolution. When I started out in birding I could chase down such species as Northern Orioles, Plain Titmice, Whistling Swans, and Oregon Juncos. Now they’re all extinct—no, not the birds, the names. The Northern Oriole is now split between the Bullock’s and the Baltimore, depending on what side of the continent you are; the Plain Titmouse is plain no more, being reclassified as either the Oak Titmouse or the Juniper Titmouse; the Whistling Swan has become the Tundra Swan; and, lastly, the Oregon Junco has been lumped in with about three other similar species to become the Dark-eyed Junco. That is this week anyhow, it might change later. I have a suspicion that all of this is simply a ploy to sell bird books!    

And the same is true for our bird of the month: the Spotted Towhee. One day, out of the blue, my aptly named Rufous-sided Towhee was transformed into the equally appropriately named Spotted Towhee. Why? Why the shift from Rufous-sided (rufous means “rusty-colored” by the way) to the Spotted? Because research revealed that the Rufous-sided was actually two distinct species, now named the Eastern Towhee (the East coast species) and the Spotted (the West coast version). I wonder who got the privilege of renaming these two species. Why wasn’t I called? I think I could have done better... 

The Spotted Towhee is one of my favorite birds. While it is one of the more common songbirds, it is not one of the more commonly seen. This secretive little fella might be big for what it is, but it’s still not going to intimidate anyone this side of a mouse. It is a sparrow, but you might not realize this because of its size, body configuration, coloration, and habits—that just about covers it! It is about the size of a blackbird.

So how would a person recognize a Rufous… I mean, a Spotted Towhee if it were seen? The Spotted Towhee sports a distinctive panache of blacks, browns, and whites. Since the bird prefers rustling around in the underbrush, digging in the leaf litter for bugs and whatnot, it will appear to be dark colored. But once it makes itself visible, the true beauty of this bird becomes apparent. The dominant color is a slate-black that covers the head, shoulders, and back, with the dark color coursing down to the tip of its long tail. The flanks are a gorgeous rusty color, hence its previous name of Rufous-sided. The color is quite striking and a great field mark. The breast is black above and white below, down through the belly. And a vivid white it is, contrasting boldly with the black and browns. Distinctive white spots, often blurring into streaks, decorate the top of the wings and the corners of the tail. Lastly, the eyes are an eerie red, providing a discordant contrast to the rest of the color scheme. They just don’t look right, but do provide yet another handy field mark. The female is similar, but she swaps out the black color for a covert earthy brown. The bills of both are large, black, and conical. 

Your best chance of seeing this reclusive, chimpmunk-wanna-be of a bird is right now, in the spring. The male will be as exposed as he can dare himself to be, perched at some prominent spot belting out his territorial calls. His song is simple and he usually finishes with some raspy squawks, but it is not unpleasant. Since he is rather shy, you’ll need to employ your best ninja skills when approaching him—or use a good pair of binoculars. He won’t stay exposed for long, but don’t worry. He’ll be back. Love is in the air and he’s also got a territory to defend, so he’ll be busy singing again in a few moments. Just don’t try to scare him.  If he thinks you’re an intrusive paparazzo, he might just hunker away and try to outwait you. And trust me, he will. Or he’ll flit away and then the game is up. You’ll have to try again another time. 

These birds are ground nesters and prefer very dense undergrowth. As noted above, they forage on the ground and sometimes their grubbing can be quite noisy. You might think that there is a good-sized rodent rummaging in the bushes, but it is a towhee. 

There are a handful of other towhees, but none make it up this far north. The closest relative is the Green-tailed Towhee of the Great Basin. It is a known breeder in southern Idaho. But who knows, the way bird species are seemingly expanding in every direction, maybe they’ll become an occasional visitor.  Green-tails are seen in the Lewiston area. 

Alright birders, let’s go! Spring is here. Birds are a’flying! There’s work to be done and fun to be had. So get out those binoculars, bird guides, and pencils and get to task doing what the best-looking, most-intelligent people on earth do: bird watch. I know, I’m one of them, and so are you! And keep an eye out for this month’s favorite bird, the Spotted Towhee. Happy birding!

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

A Bird in Hand, spotted Towhee, Rufous Towhee

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