The Spotted towhee is in the family of sparrows, and is about the size of a robin. They have heavy conical beaks specialized for eating seeds, but they also take invertebrates. Protein-rich invertebrate prey are favored during the breeding season, while seeds and berries make up the bulk of the fall and winter diet. Males have a black head, white breast, black wings with white spots and a long black tail with white patches on the underside ends. Most distinctive are the orange feathers on the sides of the belly and the bright red or orange eye. Spotted towhees occur year round in New Mexico and in the western states, only being absent from Southwestern deserts. Populations in the interior northern states migrate to the Great Plains in winter. Towhees are found in forests and scrublands and preferred breeding habitats are chaparral and thickets.
Spotted towhees forage on the ground, and their common behavior is a rapid scratching at the leaf litter and then a hop backwards to see what may have been uncovered. Males sing to attract mates and advertise territories to other males during the breeding season. Nests are constructed low in shrubs or on the ground and females may produce a second or third clutch of eggs each season. Cowbirds are known to lay their eggs in towhee nests, an example of nest parasitism, in which the towhee will then feed and nurture the cowbird nestling. The larger cowbird chick may also toss resident towhee chicks out of the nest, an unfortunate adaptation that enhances the cowbird chick’s survival at the expense of the towhee young. Snakes also prey on the ground nests of towhees, and urban domestic cats are serious predators of towhees and many other wild birds.
The Audubon Society reports that the Spotted towhee populations are currently stable and will likely be only slightly affected by habitat reductions due to global warming in the near future. The photos here were taken by James Taulman in the Cibola National forest with a Nikon P900 camera.