The Spotted Towhee and the California Towhee

July 18th, 2022

The summer days are so lovely in the mornings. Cool and clear blue skies get me out early to see what I can. There is still birdsong out there, but it is definitely waning and is being replaced with the sound of juvenile birds begging for food, calling to their parents or other communications. There still is the beautiful song of the Swainson’s Thrush to appreciate and the chattering calls of the Yellow-breasted Chat to enjoy, but the spring chorus is no longer happening in Little Lake Valley. Juvenile birds are everywhere, from White-Tailed Kites to Tree Swallows. These birds are learning how to survive from their parents, still being fed by them, but learning to find their own food at the same time. There are lots of things to learn in order to survive on their own and so the education, sort of like school, is happening all around us.

Recently, I was watching a couple of our local resident adult towhees teaching their young how to hunt and forage and fend for themselves. These birds, both the Spotted Towhee, Pipilo maculatus, and the California Towhee, Melozone crissalis, are in the same family as Sparrows. These are large New World sparrows that are very different looking from each other. The Spotted Towhee is beautiful bird, one of the first California birds I learned to identify as a teenager. With its sleek black head, bright red eyes, rufous sides, white belly, white spots on the wings and back, and white outer tail feathers (which are visible when it flies), it is an easy bird to identify and get to know. Both species of towhees like the same habitat – dry thickets, chaparral, and canyon bottoms. The California Towhee is overall grayish-brown to dark-brown with a rusty to orange-brown patch under the tail and around a thick bill. They easily blend in with the ground. Their eyes are not bright red, and they have no white spots. California Towhees prefer a variety of seeds, grasses, and herbs but during breeding season they eat some insects such as beetles and grasshoppers. Spotted Towhees also eat a variety of seeds and grasses but will eat more insects and a larger variety of insects during the breeding season. Both species eat acorns during the fall and winter so are often found under oak trees. The two species use a method of searching for food called the “double scratch,” which entails a lunge forward and then hopping backwards. They are “birds of dry thickets, brushy tangles, forest edges, old fields, shrubby backyards, chaparral, coulees, and canyon bottoms, places with dense shrub cover and plenty of leaf litter for the towhees to scratch around in.” (Cornell library, site: https://www.allaboutbirds). This is the habitat that the Little Lake Valley Mitigation Lands and the surrounding Willits area have an abundance of. It is likely you can see this bird in your own backyard or when taking a walk around town.

The vocalizations of the two species are different and since they often are hiding in the shrubbery, if you learn the calls, you will be able to identify and distinguish between the two. Spotted Towhees have a mewing call that can be drawn out slowly and a trill song made up of a series of fast notes that has been described as a ‘drink your tea,’ sound.

The California Towhee has a monotonous one note metallic ’cheenk’ that is repeated incessantly, especially at dawn. The sound of the California Towhee confounded me as a teenager as I thought it was the call of the Beachy Ground squirrel, but could never find them in my yard. California Towhees do have a song that is only sung by the male that starts with a few evenly spaced notes that become a trill and then suddenly stops.

Watching the two species feeding their young I could see that the California Towhee juvenile is very similar to its parent in appearance whereas the juvenile Spotted Towhee has a streaked breast, and its colors are much more muted. Both parents were working to feed these large youngsters and at the same time teach them to find their own food. In the meantime, both begged loudly with their thick bills open and tails twitching. It is wonderful that these two interesting sparrows are easy to watch and learn from. Neither of these are species of serious conservation concern, perhaps because of their adaptation to living in residential backyards with humans, and it is good to have them as common resident birds.