Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Dan Streiffert
One of the first songbirds to arrive in spring and among the last to depart in fall, the Spotted Towhee is a welcome presence in shrubby thickets, willow-bordered waterways, and sagebrush uplands at Malheur Refuge. In these densely vegetated habitats, it is not uncommon to hear the bird before seeing it: their call is a distinct “cat-like” mewing sound, while their song is a variable series of musical notes, often described as a buzzy trill.
The Spotted Towhee is a medium-sized sparrow native to western parts of the United States and Canada. The species is characterized by its striking appearance, with a mix of bright rufous flanks, black upperparts, and white underparts. They have a long, dark tail with white spots on the outer feathers, which gives them their name.
As omnivores, Spotted Towhees have a diverse diet consisting of insects, arachnids, seeds, and fruits. They are ground foragers and can be seen scratching the leaf litter to uncover insects or other food items. They also consume a variety of seeds, including those from grasses and wildflowers, as well as berries and other small fruit.
The Spotted Towhee’s breeding season typically occurs between April and August. They are monogamous, and both males and females are involved in nest building. The female constructs a cup-shaped nest made of grasses, twigs, and leaves, usually on or near the ground in dense vegetation.