By Diane Dragotto Williams
(June 19) With striking jet-black upperparts and throat, the Spotted Towhee makes a color statement as it inhabits open, shrubby, thick undergrowth in forest edges, and overgrown fields. Normal habitat is dry thickets, brushy tangles, chaparral, canyon bottoms, and even shrubby backyards. Actually a large sparrow with a thick, pointed bill, their flight wings are spotted and striped with brilliant white, and white bellies. Their warm rufous flanks match the dry leaves they spend their time hopping around in leaf litter. Females have the same pattern, but are warm brown where males are black. In flight, white corners flash on their black tail. Juveniles are brown with two white wing bars and darker brown streaking on the upperparts and underparts.
Pacific Coast birds deliver a fast or slow trilling song, and a whiny, cat-like mew call that is a slurred nasal “guee”. In the spring, males climb into the shrub tops, and elevated perches to sing their buzzy songs. Early in the season, males spend their mornings singing their hearts out, trying to attract a mate. Male towhees have been recorded spending 70 to 90 percent of their mornings singing. Almost as soon as they attract a mate, their attention shifts to other things, and they spend only about 5 percent of their time singing.
Spotted Towhees use a two-footed, backwards-scratching hop called “double-scratching” looking for food, then they pounce on anything they’ve uncovered. They also climb into lower branches to search for insects and fruits. During conflicts between two towhees, you may see one bird pick up a piece of twig, bark, or leaf and carry it around as an indication of submission. Disturbed or alarm-calling towhees flick their wings while perched, sometimes flashing the white corners in the tail. Towhees can fly long distances, but more often make short, slow flights between patches of cover.
In the breeding season, Spotted Towhees eat mainly insects including ground beetles, weevils, ladybugs, darkling beetles, click beetles, wood-boring beetles, crickets, grasshoppers, caterpillars, moths, bees, and wasps. Arthropods such as millipedes, sowbugs, and spiders are also eaten, and even small lizards and snakes. In fall and winter, they eat acorns, berries, and seeds including buckwheat, thistle, raspberry, blackberry, poison oak, sumac, nightshade, chickweed, and crops such as oats, wheat, corn, and cherries.
Solitary or in pairs, small family groups stay together after nesting season. Eggs are gray-brown or creamy white, with flecks and dots of purple, red-brown or gray. Towhees often choose fairly exposed areas over sites deep inside a thicket, but within these areas they find a clump of grass, a log, or the base of a shrub to conceal their nests against. The female builds the nest beginning with a framework of dry leaves, stems, and bark strips. She lines this with an inner cup of fine, dry materials such as grasses, rootlets, pine needles, and hair. The finished nest is about 4 inches across, with an inner cup of about 2 inches across and about 2 and a half inches deep. Ground nests are built into depressions so that the nest rim is at the soil surface or only slightly above it. But occasionally nests can be built up to 12 feet high in a tree. But the most unusual behavior of this bird is when females divert predators by scurrying from the nest in the manner of a small rodent to distract an intruder!
Wildhaven Ranch is a wildlife sanctuary in Cedar Glen that gives programs to the public by appointments only. Bears, Bobcat, Coyotes, Deer, Eagles, Falcon, Hawk, Owl and Raccoons are seen “up close and personal” in guided tours. For reservations, call (909) 337-7389.