The sparrow family is quite large and quite a few of the sparrows are brown, streaky and sometimes hard to separate. The most common sparrow in our region is the Song Sparrow. This is, indeed, one of the brown, streaky and hard to identify members of the family. In contrast, the Spotted Towhee does not fall in with its look-alike cousins.
There are two regularly occurring towhees in Canada; we have the Spotted Towhee in the west, (southern BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan), and the Eastern Towhee in southern Canada from Manitoba eastward. The two species are similar in appearance and it was once thought they were a single species. Both species are about 19 centimetres in length, which is one or two centimetres larger than our familiar Song Sparrow.
An adult male Spotted Towhee is quite striking in appearance. It has a solid black hood; the back is black with many of the feathers having white tips and edges giving it a “spotted” look. the flanks are reddish-orange and the belly is white. The female is very similar, with the blacks being replaced by a dark slate-grey colour.
Like the other sparrows, towhees are seed eaters and feed primarily on the ground. They will also eat insects, particularly when feeding young, and sometimes berries.
They tend to be shy and often stay out of sight in thick brushy areas. Our dense, coniferous covered mountain slopes are not ideal habitat and therefore this is an uncommon bird in our region. On average I see then in our region about every second year. When they do appear, it is usually in a hedge or patch of brush in town. Such sightings are generally in early spring and the birds rarely stay more than a day or two.
On occasion pairs have been observed in early summer suggesting that they may breed here from time to time, but there is no hard evidence of this so far. In areas of BC where breeding is more regular, nests are usually built on the ground beneath thickets of blackberry, wild rose or another suitably thick shrub.
Last week, a Spotted Towhee appeared in my yard on Thursday afternoon. It was still there on Friday morning. This is just the fourth time they have been in my yard since 1976. Towhees are very attractive birds, so if you have sparrows in your yard, watch out for the larger one with a black head and rufous flanks.