All month I’m profiling birds that evoke a sense of fall, often through colorful plumage reminiscent of brilliant autumn leaves. This week’s featured bird, however, is more reminiscent of that iconic mid-fall holiday, Halloween, with its orange, black and white plumage and glowing red eyes. If you’ve ventured into stores lately – any stores – you can’t get away from masks, costumes, decorations and other accoutrements of the holiday, but if you’d rather have a touch of feathered Halloween instead, you must meet the spotted towhee.
Name: Spotted Towhee
Scientific Name: Pipilo maculatus
Scientific Family: Emberizidae (Buntings and American Sparrows) or Passerellidae (New World Sparrows)
Habitat: Prefers deep thickets with dappled shade and good cover. Shrubby areas such as overgrown fields, canyon floors, forest edges, riparian zones and even mature suburban yards and gardens with adequate cover can be good places to spot spotted towhees.
Range: Found year-round in appropriate habitats in western North America from British Columbia to New Mexico, but absent from barren desert regions and broad open plains. In summer, the breeding range extends further north into Canada, while the winter non-breeding range extends into Texas and central Mexico.
These birds are boldly colored with a strong black hood and black upperparts with dotted white wing bars. The hood extends onto the breast, and the bright red eyes stand out in the black face. The flanks are a deep, rich burnt orange and contrast sharply with the white belly. The undertail coverts are also orange, but a more washed out shade than the flanks. Females are similar to males but have a brownish tinge to their dark parts rather than stark black, and the orange tones may appear somewhat faded as well.
While these may seem to be bold colors for a bird, spotted towhees prefer darker shadows and spotty shaded areas where their colors are more muted. The spotting on the wings even mimics dappled shade, providing even more camouflage. Spotted towhees tend to stay low, foraging on the ground with a quick two-footed backward hop, scratching in leaf litter for choice morsels of insects, spiders, seeds, nuts, berries and grains.
I’ve been privileged to see these birds in person on several occasions, though they don’t tend to stay in one open spot for long, and good views can be scarce. The key is to look for these birds earlier in the morning, when males will seek out an open perch to sing. Their vocalizations help attract mates and advertise their territory, as well as to give birders unparalleled opportunities for solid identification and keen observation. When I lived out west, I even had one of these birds visit my yard briefly, enjoying the fallen pine needles and leaf litter beneath a thick evergreen shrub that bordered the house, providing good cover and security for its wary personality. If you’d like to attract these autumn-colored birds to your yard, I highly recommend avoiding raking leaves, pruning shrubbery or otherwise keeping a meticulous yard – the towhees will thank you!