The Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus) is a large new world sparrow and can be found all over Gabriola Island. This handsome and distinctive bird – larger than a song sparrow and smaller than a robin, was lumped in with the eastern variation and called the Rufous Sided Towhee until recently. They average around 18-19 cm in length and weigh approximately 40 grams.
Adults Spotted Towhees have deep chestnut sides, a white belly and a long dark tail with white edges – and they have those spectacular red eyes! They have white spots on their scapulars (kind of where the wing meets the back) and white wing bars. Males have a very dark head, upper body and tail; these parts are not quite so dark on the females (more brown than black). The belly is white, and the white spots on the scapulars give this bird its name as well as distinguishing it from its eastern cousin. The white at the corners of the long tail is visible in flight. Juvenile towhees are heavily streaked.
The best place to look for Spotted Towhees (apart from at your feeder) is on the ground or low in the bushes, particularly in the salal. Mainly a ground-forager, the Spotted Towhee uses a two-footed scratching method, kicking both feet backward at the same time to locate food under the litter. This movement is often quite loud, and when the birds are in thick cover, the sound of them foraging is one of the best ways to locate them. Towhees prefer to forage in areas with a thick layer of leaf litter and a screen of foliage and twigs low to the ground. They eat mainly seeds, berries, acorns and insects.
Towhees prefer to build nests in thickets and at the edges of brushy woodlands, gardens and shrubby park areas. During the breeding season, the female single-handedly builds a cuplike nest using grass, twigs, weeds, barks, and stems usually at the bottom of a bough of a tree or shrub or near the ground in a well-covered area. While the female does all the building, the male does bring her the materials for the nest. The nest can be difficult to locate because it is hidden from view. The female does not fly to it directly but lands on the ground near it and walks toward it behind the brush. (note: many Towhees were likely lost during the extremely heavy snow falls last year – trapped in the dense salal bushes) The female lays 2 to 6 greenish or cream-colored eggs with brown speckles, which she alone incubates for 12 to 13 days while the male brings her food and protects the nest. Although the male Towhee hardly goes near the nest during incubation, once the eggs are hatched it helps to feed the young Towhees until they are ready to leave the nest 10 to 12 days after hatching.
The song of the Spotted Towhee has up to 8 introductory notes and a buzzy trill: che che che che zheee. The call is a harsh, rising, growling zhreeee!
These are beautiful birds and a delight to watch year round on our island.