Hi, Nice Towhee Meet You

spotted towhee california

How to Identify a Towhee

Towhees: these robin-sized sparrows are no drab LBJs

The rufous towhees sport a baggy three-piece-suit: a loose jacket on their back; an orange vest on their sides; and a plain white shirt covering their breast. A deep black head and beak surround bright amber eyes.

Yet towhee attire varies slightly by sex and species. Males don dark black while females appear dirty brown- or gray-black. White frill is sparse on the eastern towhee, but plentiful on the western spotted towhee.

An acrobatic spotted towhee at William L. Finley Wildlife Refuge near Corvallis, Oregon.

Although distinctively dressed, towhees are more often heard than seen. Once called “chewinks” (for the sound of one of their calls) spotted towhees—more vocal than their eastern counterparts—have a few quirky calls that catch the ear of passers-by. Listen especially for soft trills during spring and summer and the sound of a towhee’s favorite activity: scratching through mats of leaves!

Come Autumn, Some Plants Provide Towhee Treats

First a catlike “mewww”questions from the thickets, “is anyone listening to me?” Then a constant scratching. A towhee! 

You can find this unusually large and colorful sparrow across the continental United States—year-round in the southern U.S. and migrating to northern states in the spring.

Leaf lovers, towhees find places without an overabundance of fallen leaves inhospitable. The towhee will acquiesce with the edges of a park or an infrequently manicured yard. But to the towhee, the scrubbier, brushier, or leafier, the better. 

A spotted towhee singing at dusk in a forest in northern California.

Near water or in temperate climates, towhees are common. They live where deciduous plants thrive, plants that give shelter and food both to towhees and insects that seek refuge in the rich layer of decomposing leaves.

If you’re lucky enough to spot a towhee in an arid climate, you’re either walking along a perennial stream or standing in a watered backyard adorned with broadleaf shrubs. Most of the desert does not supply the towhees with enough dead leaves to loudly rummage through.

For example, in the arid intermountain region or the southwest, where willow and cottonwood buffer softly flowing waters and drop plenty of leaves, these goofy sparrows play to their utmost pleasure. And in the Pacific northwest, spotted towhees are common throughout the rainforest, at home rummaging in the moist and dense underbrush.

spotted towhee
Spotted towhee in my parents’ yard in Washington.

Yard Towhees

To attract this oversized rufous-sided sparrow to your yard, try planting native shrubs that drop their leaves every fall and provide dense tangles low to the ground for sparrow shelter. It’s also good practice to offer a birdbath and keep cats, songbirds’ top predator, inside. 

The key for towhees: don’t rake up all of those dead leaves. If you leave the leaf litter alone, the bugs and birds will thank you.

P.S. I didn’t forget about these critters, but they’re a different animal.