Spot Check

Spotted Towhee
Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus)

Among Spotted Towhees (Pipilo maculatus), our local oregonus race is the least spotted.  Now, however, this bird has appeared at the BirdCam station over the last couple of days.  His spottiness immediately caught my eye.  I decided to shine a spotlight on this unusual visitor.

These large Sparrows were formerly classified Rufous-sided Towhees (Pipilo erythrophthalmus).  Erythrophthalmus literally means "red eye."  In 1995, the birds were divided into two species, Eastern Towhee (P. erythrophthalmus) which have no spots and the Spotted Towhee (P. maculatus), maculatus meaning "spotted."  Got it?  You might know the word "immaculate" which means "without spots," but I digress.  Word etymology is one of my arcane interests.

Spotted Towhee
Oregonus Male

This is a photo of a typical oregonus Spotted Towhee of the Northwest Coast.  Spot-checking reveals how different this bird is from the one in the first photo.  According to BirdWeb, the Spotteds of eastern Washington are spottier than those west of the Cascade Mountains.  My ID skills are spotty at best, but I will hazard a guess that the eastern Washington birds are montanus variants of the Rocky Mountains and Great Basin.  Our Mr. Spotty in the first photo may be a wanderer from those regions.  This oregonus female Spotted Towhee with brown hood and back instead of black is relatively spotless:

Spotted Towhee
Oregonus Female

I found one website that listed 21 subspecies.  It's enough to cause a case of spotted fever.  Another Northwest birder, Greg Gillson has had an experience similar to mine in Beaverton, Oregon.  He has classified his super spotties Nevada Towhees (P. m. curtatus).  Of particular interest is that both his and mine have appeared at roughly the same time.  Now is when many birds are on the move to their summer nesting sites.  This could explain the appearance of these vagabonds.

First Yellow-shafted Northern Flickers, now this.  I think I am seeing spots.  I believe the lesson is perhaps we may be working too hard attempting to classify, categorize and localize every little detail.  Birds of a feather often inhabit specific locales and we humans like to pigeon-hole things.  But birds, in particular, also have the ability to move great distances.  Seeking mates and exploiting food sources are possible reasons.  Perhaps we should expect the unexpected and not be surprised when it occurs.


  1. Dave,

    I think you are correct that this towhee with white outer tail feathers is one of the inland group. I wish we knew what one!

    Going only by published ranges in "The A.O.U. Check-list of North American Birds" (1957, the last time subspecies were included), gives these three possibilities:

    curtatus: from s.c. BC and n. ID south, east of the Cascades to n. CA and w. NV.

    arcticus: from c. AB n. ND south, east of the Rocky Mountains to n.e. CO. Casual w. to UT.

    montanus: central e. CA, central e. Nevada, n. UT n.w. CO south.

    Thus, we know curatus breeds in eastern Washington.

    arcticus breeds north and east of Washington and could occur in winter (even though no records up to the last 20 years, anyway).

    And montanus apparently gets no closer than central eastern California, so seems least likely to winter in NW Washington.

    We need to get some banders interested in this! Even though not a species by today's definition, they are a unique population that has not been reported historically.

    Thanks for posting your photos.


  2. Greg, thank you very much for this information. I have incorporated it in the following post,


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