By Jeannie Marcure

For the past several years we’ve been lucky to have a family of Spotted Towhees make their home in our yard and garden area. Although migratory, Towhees are one of the first spring yard birds to arrive (March 9 this year) and one of the last to leave in late October. Within a few days after the arrival of the male this spring, our yard was filled with the cheerful buzzy trill, and plaintive catlike meow calls as he waited for the arrival of the female. You can listen to the sounds of the Spotted Towhee at Cornell Lab: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Spotted_Towhee/sounds.

A large member of the sparrow family, the male Spotted Towhee with his shiny black hood, red eye, white belly, rufous flanks and black and white spotted wings is a truly a striking bird. Towhees have thick pointed bills, short necks and a long rounded tail edged in white. This last feature is especially noticeable in flight. The female is very similar in appearance but has a grayish head and back. Juveniles are a dull grayish brown with very faint spotting. At 8 inches, Towhees are just slightly smaller than Robins.

The Spotted Towhee and the Eastern Towhee were formerly considered to be a single species called the Rufous-sided Towhee. The Eastern Towhee lacks the spotting on the wings, but otherwise the appearance and size is very similar.

Towhees prefer an open, shrubby habitat with thick undercover. In our yard, they seem especially attracted to the leaf litter under a small stand of aspens but are also frequently seen cleaning up spillage under both our suet and seed feeders. Interestingly, they hop backwards as they double-scratch with both feet, searching for small insects, berries and seeds. Sometimes Towhees can be located by listening for the rustling sound they make as they scratch in the dry leaves. The male Towhee is extremely protective of “his” territory and we’ve frequently observed him aggressively chasing other birds away from “his” aspen area.

After the male courts the female with his buzzy singing and by displaying with wings and tail spread, the female builds a nest on or near the ground. Made of leaves, twigs, strips of bark and grasses, this nest is lined with pine needles, grasses and shredded bark. Typically, two broods of 3 to 5 eggs are laid per season. The eggs are creamy with brown spots and are incubated for 12 to 14 days by the female alone. Young leave the nest at 10 to 12 days after being tended by both parents. Because the nests are so low, I have worried that our Fox Terrier who shares the yard with the Towhees will disrupt the nest, but to my knowledge this has never happened. I have read that rather than flying when disturbed, the female typically runs away like a mouse, so perhaps he doesn’t even notice her.

Although my reading tells me that Towhees are secretive and hard to spot, “our” Towhees make full use of all the amenities of our yard and can be seen several times a day using the bird bath or cleaning up under the feeders. They also seem to enjoy our rather untidy and chemical free lawn and we often see them bathing in the dew on the morning grass. They are one of the most vocal birds that frequent our yard and I hear their plaintive “meow” almost every time I go outside! When the juveniles have fledged, I see the adults showing them the “ropes” of the area by bringing them to the bird bath and to favorite feeding spots.

A group of Towhees is collectively known as a “teapot” or a “tangle.” If you’d like to attract a TEAPOT of Towhees to your yard, I’d suggest that you consider leaving things just a bit more untidy—perhaps not raking the leaves in the fall! After all, the leaves are good mulch and why rake leaves when you could be out birding! If you’d like to observe the family of Towhees who live with us, just give me a call!