Two Large New World Sparrows

November 21, 2023

As fall continues, leaves cover the ground, trees become silhouettes, bird nests are exposed, and it is much easier to see any bird in a tree. As I look around, the raptors that have migrated here from the northern plains are easy to spot which has me constantly surveying the treetops. Yesterday there were a couple of juvenile Red-tailed Hawks sitting, hunched and wet, in the deciduous alder trees along Outlet Creek. Below them were many small birds hiding in the blackberry and other shrubs. These small and large sparrows are careful to watch for the raptor predators that can swoop down and carry one of them away in a flash.

Today the sun is out, and the birds are coming out of the thick shrubbery to see if it is safe. The two largest sparrows are birds that do not have the name sparrow attached to them and I wanted to highlight them since they are common, year-round resident birds.

The California Towhee, Melozone crissalis, is mostly gray-brown with an orange rusty patch under the tail and around the bill. It has a stout short bill and a long tail. The adult is just slightly smaller than an American Robin. The call note of the California Towhee is perhaps one of the most monotonous clear metallic chips you can hear daily. The male California Towhee does sing a song in the spring that is a few different variations on a combination of those metallic chips at different speeds. Their alarm chips can be rapid and loud, and a mated pair can face each other making a rapid series of squeals and squeaks which Cornell’s All About Birds states is an important part of reinforcing the pair bond.

Perhaps the most noticeable thing about this large sparrow is that it is often the bird that is banging itself into your window repeatedly, all day long in the early spring, or throwing itself against your car mirror. This is a territorial display aimed at their reflection and it often leaves behind a smeary window or car mirror. We put on our window screens as soon as we notice this beginning to occur and fold our car mirrors in towards the car (when parked) for the entirety of the rest of the spring. The California Towhee is a bird you are just as likely to hear in your backyard and neighborhood as out on a trail.

California Towhees eat a variety of seeds and invertebrates, nesting often in Poison Oak shrubs and feasting on the pale white berries. Keep your eyes and ears open for this common large brownish-gray bird.

The second large New World sparrow I will tell you about is the much more colorful Spotted Towhee, Pipito masculatus. The male Spotted Towhee has distinctive rusty red patches on its flanks that surround a bright white belly, and it has a black back and head. When they fly, the spots on the wings, back, and corners of the tail stand out. The female Spotted Towhee has a brown head and upperparts. One of the outstanding characteristics of adult Spotted Towhees is their bright red eyes, which was something that caught my attention the first time I looked at one with binoculars.

Spotted Towhees are widespread in the West and is a different species than the Eastern Towhee. Both were called Rufous-sided Towhees until scientists split them into two species in 1995.

The Spotted Towhee song is simple but with more variety than the California Towhee. Most males start with one to eight short introductory notes and then a fast series that is described as a piece of paper stuck in a fan. It is a great way to describe it. They also make a long-drawn-out cat-like meow sound and a high, thin flight call that is used as a warning when there is danger nearby.

Like the California Towhee, Spotted Towhees are birds of thickets and brushy areas, riparian corridors, chaparral, and the edge of forests. They are commonly found in our backyards and at bird feeders. Spotted Towhees are most often found on the ground under the feeder scratching and performing its distinctive two-footed backward hop in the deep leaf litter and then pouncing on whatever they have uncovered. They eat a variety of insects and spiders though in the fall and winter add acorns, berries, and seeds to their diet.

A few interesting facts about these lovely Spotted Towhees:

They sometimes sunbathe in the grass by spreading their wings and tail feathers out. Either to get rid of mites and other parasites or to warm up.

When two Spotted Towhees have a conflict something that seems to end the fight is that one of them gets a twig, leaf, or piece of bark and carries it around. This may be an act of surrender.

During the breeding season in the spring, the male Spotted Towhees have been documented spending 70 to 90 percent of their time singing in the mornings. This can be very early, even before the sun is up. But once a mate is found the amount of time singing is drastically reduced to around 5 percent each morning.

One more interesting fact is that female Spotted Towhees nesting on the ground will run away from their nest rather than fly when disturbed.

Keep your eyes and ears open for these two large New World sparrows in your yard and all over the Willits area. They are easy to find and fun to watch!