Grays Harbor Birds — Spotted Towhee

Size: 8.5 inches

General Description: Formerly known as a Rufous-sided Towhee, this common bird can most often be found under the bushes, on the open forest floor, and among the shrubbery near lawns. With its distinctive black head and upper body, red eyes, rusty-orange sides, black tail showing white at the corners in flight, white belly, and white spots and bars on the wings, the male is hardly inconspicuous. The females are similar, but appear more brown than black, and their colors are not as bright, and juvenile birds are heavily streaked and lack the colors of the adults.

Habitat: Towhees prefer brushy clearings with some sunny patches, forested lowlands, shrubby thickets of salal, willow, myrtle, and blackberries, and residential garden edges.

Behavior: These birds are almost exclusively ground birds, easily located by their loud scratching in the leaves under the bushes. They are rarely seen feeding in trees but they will often show up at the seed and suet feeders in our yards, and can be very aggressive defending their spot on the feeder. They are also quite vocal, and have several calls and sounds; one is a sort of questioning single note that rises, as though to say, “Ehhhhh?” The other is more of a rattle, repeated over and over.

Diet: Spotted Towhees are seed, insect, and worm eaters (more correctly called terrestrial invertebrates), and will also eat acorns and berries. As mentioned earlier, they are also quite fond of suet, especially if its the kind with berries in it. Nestlings are fed insects and some fruit.

Nesting: Male Spotted Towhees display from high perches, singing to defend their territories as early as February, flashing their wings open and shut to display their white spots, but the female picks the nest site. In April, she finds a scrape on the ground or a low fork in the bushes and builds the cup-shaped nest of leaves, grass, bark, twigs, and rootlets, and lines it with fine grass, evergreen needles, and hair. She lays three to five eggs and incubates them for 12 to 14 days. Both parents feed the young, which leave the nest in about 10 to 12 days, but they do not fly for another six days. The young stay in the parents territory for another 30 days, and the parents generally have just the one brood each year.

Migration: Western Washington birds are year-round residents, while east side birds either come over to the western side or head to the southwestern U.S.

Conservation Status: Due to the clear-cutting of forests and increase in suburban housing developments with the subsequent landscaping, Spotted Towhees have experienced a significant increase since 1966.

When and Where to Find in Grays Harbor: They can be found in almost any shrubby area around the harbor, particularly near streams and rivers. Listen for their double-footed scratching near any patch of salal, or blackberry or willow thicket, and watch for that flash of orange, black, and white.

Dianna Moore | Grays Harbor Audubon