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  • Christopher Stephens, MSc

What is a Towhee?

Skulking Songbirds Intrigue Viewers Year Round




What lives in Western North America, looks a little bit like a robin but isn't? A Spotted Towhee! Eastern North America is home to the counterpart species the Eastern Towhee, while further south, interesting towhee species to search for include the Green-tailed Towhee, California Towhee and Abert's Towhee.


All of these birds are a little hard to place at first glance. Just what are these shy but sometimes raucous songbirds? While seemingly too large to fit into the category, towhees are simply "overgrown" New World Sparrows. Related to Old World Buntings, New World Sparrows are remarkably different from Old World Sparrows such as the House Sparrow. Towhees are the grandest representatives of the New World Sparrow category.


Towhees possess conical bills which help them to crush seeds and the hard shells of insect prey alike. Often feeding at ground level, towhees can be discovered by the sound of leaves and other shrub land and wooded habitat debris being scratched and rustled with the help of a towhee's powerful claws. In fact, the scratching of a towhee might cause a beginning birder some alarm! The commotion associated with a good towhee foraging session sounds like a far larger animal searching for a meal!


With red eyes, brilliant plumage and a distinctive long tail that aids in balancing, Spotted Towhees and their relatives are some of the most unique songbirds that can be commonly encountered. Almost any shrubby habitat in BC at suitable elevations in BC can host Spotted Towhees. From time to time, a stray Green-tailed Towhee will stray north into Canada, attracting it's fair share of attention from birders. Towhee conservation can be furthered by offering food, planting native shrubs and keeping cats indoors as much as possible!


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