For the Birds: Spotted Towhee — Our Resident Skulker

Monday, July 12, 2021


Spotted Towhee (male) on rock. Photo by Christine Southwick

By Christine Southwick

Spotted Towhees, formerly called Rufus-sided Towhees (their breasts and bellies are white), are gorgeous birds. If you have shrubs and leaves under them, then you probably have towhees, if you can spot one.

These “larger than Song Sparrows but smaller than robins” birds are masters of lurking under bushes and low branches as they vigorously scratch and double-kick through leaves and other duff searching for their meals of seeds and invertebrates.

Young Spotted Towhee first juvenile stage. Photo by Craig Kerns

Starting as early as February male Spotted Towhees claim their territories by belting out their buzzy songs— they sound similar to Dark-eyed Juncos, only louder.

These are ground nesters, with the females constructing the top edge of the nest level with the leaf litter. Watch for and avoid their nests which are usually in secluded areas. Both parents feed their 3-5 young, and often only have one brood.

They mainly feed their fledglings insects they find using their loud two-footed backward-hopping- insect-seeking rustling, but they eat predominately seeds and berries the rest of the year.

Juvenile Spotted Towhee in second stage -- body feathers are changed to appear more adult. Note the brown flight feathers. Photo by Craig Kerns

The juvenile towhees at first glance look like over-sized Song Sparrows with long dark tails. They start replacing their body feathers into the rufus sides like their parents about 3-4 weeks after they have left their nest, but their wing feathers will be dark brown. If you see only the male feeding his young — the female is probably hatching a second brood.

If a second brood fledges, you may see Spotted Towhees with three distinct feather patterns:
  1. beginning juvenile plumage,
  2. 2nd stage of juvenile plumage (these feathers will be kept until the following summer), and
  3. the shiny, black wing (flight) feathers of the impressive adults.

Three colors of eyes as Spotted Towhees age. Photo by Elaine Chuang

Another clue is eye color. Juvies have grayish eyes; first to second year birds have orange eyes; and adults over two years old have bright reddish eyes.

Right now you might not be seeing them under feeders too much, but they are skulking around under those shrubs and digging through to the leaves.


Bridget July 12, 2021 at 11:47 AM  

I will always call them Rufus-Sided Towhees

Great article

Anonymous,  July 24, 2022 at 7:47 AM  

Thank you for this. Especially the transitional photos

Anonymous,  September 6, 2022 at 7:52 PM  

Thanks for this great article. Lovely photos, too. I stumbled upon this while looking for info on juvenile towhees. Delighted to discover it's from my hometown of Shoreline! (I've lived in Oregon for 30 years.)

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