The Spotted Towhee, (Pipilo maculatus), was originally grouped with the Eastern Towhee (until 1995), as the Rufous Sided Towhee when first described by Swainson in 1827. Before that, it was painted by naturalist John White with Walter Raleigh in 1586! Some 20 subspecies are recognized with some people treating these as separate species. Indeed, the whole Genus classification is still disputed but is typically grouped with Ground Sparrows and Buntings
The Spotted Towhee's range runs down the West side of North America from South-West Canada south to Western Mexico and it is typically resident, not migratory. In Summer, its breeding range extends Eastwards into the Great Plains. In Winter it can be found further East from West and Central Texas all the way up into Central Canada. Hybridization is common with the closely related Eastern Towhee and much debate as to the Spotted Towhee’s range still exists.
Its preferred habitat is dense deciduous and mixed scrub and bushes. A ground feeder, it is usually found low to the ground. It is often found on forest edges and gardens and is attracted to seed feeders, often scratching around below them, especially in harsh conditions.
Spotted Towhees have a very varied diet including spiders, insects, fruit, seeds and occasionally small lizards and snakes! Typically, it forages through leaf litter and the “double scratch” is very distinctive.
The Spotted Towhee lays 2 to 6 white or light gray eggs in a cup nest low to the ground usually in a dense bush. Incubation is 12-14 days and is carried out by the female only.
The Spotted Towhee is a relatively large sparrow with a distinctively long tail. It has black head, back, wings, rump and tail with the wings and tail spotted white. The sides and under tail coverts are rufous, (the brightness is very variable by subspecies) and belly and breast white. Eastern Towhees are similar but lack the white spots on the primaries. Note the female is similar but is typically duller and her head is dark gray rather than black. The red eye is very noticeable when up close in most of the subspecies. Its song is a buzzy cheweeee and its call is a meewwww.
- A group of Towhees is called a tangle or a teapot
- When flushed, Towhees often run rather than fly away and will lie on the ground and sun themselves in good weather.
- Southeastern subspecies have straw-colored rather than red eyes.
- Pipilo (the genus name), means chirper in Latin – an appropriate name.