In my last column, I asked you to look up in the sky to observe night hawks. Now I would like you to look down and listen for a noise under your shrubs. Look closely and you may see a spotted towhee. It is a strikingly handsome ground feeder with a black hood (dark brown in females) over its head, breast and back, white flecking on its back, rufous flanks, a long black tail with white spots at the corners, bright red eyes and dull pink legs. It is a year-round resident in New Mexico. Also, look for its relatives, the canyon towhee and the green-tailed towhee. More on them in future columns.
The towhee was named for one of its calls, often heard from a low, dense thicket. The spotted towhee also gives a loud, cat-like mew and a song consisting of a few quick, slurred notes followed by a short, thin trill.
The spotted towhee is a little larger than its sparrow relatives but smaller than a robin. Spotted towhees spend a lot of time hunting for seeds and insects by scratching leaves and litter on the ground. They jump in the air and kick backward with both feet, scratching up a storm, exposing their favorite foods. Ways to attract towhees include keeping shrub branches low and allowing leaves to accumulate under the shrubs. Serve quality seed spread on the ground. My towhees love white proso millet. Don’t forget to provide a ground-level birdbath.
Early in the breeding season, male spotted towhees spend their mornings singing their hearts out, trying to attract a mate. They may spend 80 percent of their mornings singing. Once they attract a mate, their attention turns to other things and their singing drops to 5 percent. Spotted towhees nest primarily on the ground in dense thickets. Nest predation by household cats, snakes, squirrels and scrub jays is a significant factor in the reproductive success of this bird. The female builds the nest over a period of about five days. The nest is bulky and sturdily built of leaves, strips of bark, twigs and grass.
Each season, one to two broods of three to five eggs are laid. The eggshells are creamy white to pale gray with reddish brown spots. The female incubates the eggs alone for about 14 days. Both parents feed the young who leave the nest about 11 days after hatching.
Enjoy these beautiful birds this fall and winter.