Thursday, March 26, 2009

In the backyard... Spotted Towhee

Spotted TowheeSpotted Towhee, Jackson Bottom Wetlands, Hillsboro, Oregon on 8 December 2007 by Greg Gillson.


Blackish above with rufous sides and a white belly, this large sparrow with a red eye and white spots on the back, wing, and tail corners is a widespread and common bird in the Pacific Northwest.

It has been about 10 years since the American Ornithologists' Union split the former Rufous-sided Towhee into two species, the Eastern Towhee and the Spotted Towhee of the West. Spotted Towhees breed in brushy areas from extreme southern Canada from British Columbia to Alberta and south through California east to west Texas, and in the mountains of Mexico to Guatemala. In winter the Rocky Mountain and western Great Plains populations move south.

In the Pacific Northwest, birds west of the Cascades and Sierra Nevadas are resident or only weakly migratory. Birds are found throughout the year in brushy woods, clear cuts, riparian habitats, and backyard hedges. They are not found in the deep woods or open fields, but take up residence in any open brushy areas edging these larger habitats.

On the other hand, east of the Cascades, Spotted Towhees are restricted to brushy areas in mountains and along riparian corridors, such as stream and lake sides. They are also found in backyards in most towns throughout the Pacific Northwest. In winter, most Spotted Towhees east of the Cascades migrate south. A few remain in backyards in towns.

The song of Spotted Towhees vary by population, but most Pacific NW birds start with a sharp note and then a long trill, for which they are named: tow-eeeeeee. Birds in the Great Plains have 1 to 8 introductory notes before the trill. The common call note is a nasal rising, zhreeee. Besides differences in migratory patterns and songs, birds west of the Cascades have smaller and fewer spots than more easterly and southern populations. The photo above is of this less-spotted form west of the Cascades. This bird's upperparts are more brownish, an indication that it is a female, though the differences between the sexes are slight.

In the backyard, towhees hop on the ground under bushes kicking up leaf litter looking for insects, grubs, and seeds. They will eat at tray feeders, but rarely venture out far from cover.