The Literary Drover No. 1607

This is me, being a bird nerd: While watching a pair of nesting Golden Eagles I realized I was being verbally assailed by a bird later identified as Spotted Towhee. A discrete examination of the behavior later revealed that I was too close to its nest and was being asked to leave the area. It is named Pipilo maculatus. Order: Passeriformes. Family: Emberizidae.

The Spotted Towhee is a large, striking sparrow-like bird, generally found in thickets in the American West. The males gleam black from above while the females are grayish in Colorado. They are also spotted and striped with brilliant white. The warm rufous flanks match the dry leaves they tend to favor for an environment. In the spring months the males will ascend to the top of thickets and shrubs and sing a song described as “buzzy”.

If you can do so, watch when the Spotted Towhee is feeding on the ground. It has a two-footed, backwards-scratching hop that it uses to uncover seeds and small invertebrates it favors for food.

At one time the Spotted Towhee and the Eastern Towhee were considered to be the same species – the Rufous-sided Towhee because of interbreeding.

Again, spend some time watching quietly, especially in the morning, when the male will sing to attract a mate. The male towhee has been documented through recordings to spend 70 to 90 percent of the morning singing in pursuit of mating. Once a mate is acquired the singing is reduced to about five percent of the time.

The Spotted Towhee is about a third bigger than a Song Sparrow and weighs twice as much, but it is smaller than a robin.

For those interested it is known as “Tohi tacheté” in French and “Chouis” in Spanish.

I observed the Spotted Towhee in a large clump of bushes, much of which was Mountain Mahogany. It also nests in dry thickets, brush tangles, the edges of forests, old fields, backyards, and canyon bottoms. The denser the shrub cover and the more leaf litter present the more likely the Spotted Towhee is to live in it.

When breeding the Spotted Towhee eats mostly insects, including ground beetles, weevils, ladybugs, darkling beetles, click beetles, wood-boring beetles, crickets, grasshoppers, caterpillars, moths, bees, and wasps. It may also eat what it finds in leaf litter, including millipedes, sow bugs, and small spiders. Should these food sources be limited they will also eat acorns, berries, and seeds that include buckwheat, thistle, raspberry, blackberry, poison oak, sumac, nightshade, chickweed, and crops such as oats, wheat, corn, and cherries.

Outside of mating season, in the fall and winter, they will eat plant foods as noted.

The nest of the Spotted Towhee is built initially by the female, with a framework of dry leaves, steams, and strips of bark. The inner edge of the nest will be lined with dry and fine materials that include grasses, pine needles, and hair from mammals such as deer and elk. After the nest is completed it will measure about four and a half inches across, with an inner dimension of two and a half inches to four inches, and will have a depth of about two and a half inches.

The Spotted Towhee is a generally a ground nester, and the nest will be built into a depression so that the nest rim locates at the surface of the soil or slightly above it. The nest may be located as high as twelve feet off the ground, but the preference is at ground, inside of a thicket, to conceal it and the contents.

A Spotted Towhee will rummage in leaf litter under shrubs and in thickets. They tend to hop when moving, and do so with deliberation to locate food. A conflict between two may involve one picking up a piece of bark, leaf, or twig, and carry it around as a defense against the other one. If a Spotted Towhee is disturbed it will flick its wings while perched, and sometimes may flash the white corners of the tail.

Resources for birdwatchers:

http://feederwatch.org/learn/identifying-birds/#download-feederwatch-posters

http://www.stateofthebirds.org/2014/2014SOTB

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