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Fox Sparrow, Green-tailed Towhee, Spotted Towhee
Lake Tahoe is home to many species of colorful and interesting birds. Last week we looked at the Western Tanager and Audubon’s Warbler. This week I’ll introduce you to three more of my favorite birds: the Fox Sparrow, the Green-tailed Towhee and the Spotted Towhee.

I first heard the song of the Fox Sparrow in February of 2007. I walk early in the morning and at that time of year, it’s quite dark when I set out but there was this incredible bird song coming from the manzanita bushes. Every morning, there he was, hidden in the bush, singing. It took about a month before I was finally able to see him. As the spring wore on, he emerged from the brush to perch on the very top of a branch where he sang and he sang. I got a good look at him with binoculars and noticed that he was mostly gray with rust-colored accents, including a spot on his head, which enabled me to finally identify this vocal songster.

That year was the only time I heard a Fox Sparrow in February. I typically start to hear his song in late March or April. I don’t know if this particular bird was lost or just excited to begin breeding but he sure brightened up those few weeks in February for me. Now I know that spring has sprung when I hear the sweet song of the Fox Sparrow.

This bird tends to sit on the tip top of a tree or bush. He looks from side to side as he sings, flicking his tail. At first he can be shy, and will dart back into the brush when he sees me looking, but eventually will get used to regular visitors. His song is inspirational to me, speaking of hope and joy. Find the link on the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza website to hear this and other bird songs.

The song of the Green-tailed Towhee is similar to that of the Fox Sparrow. He is an olive bird with yellow/green accents on the tips of his wings and tail, a white throat and sporting a rust-colored spot on his slightly tufted head. He scratches under dense cover in the brush for food and even nests on the ground or in low, thick bushes. He is one of the smaller towhees, with a length of 6-7”. The females are similar in coloration, with a slightly duller crown. They typically have two broods per season, incubating for about 12 days, with the kids out of the house after about 14 days.

A larger towhee and much more visible is the Spotted Towhee. This bird is 7 to 8 ½” long with a black head, striking white belly, white spots on his wings and rufous- (rust) colored sides. The female builds the cup-shaped nest on or near the ground in dense bush, laying 3-6 white eggs, with reddish brown and lilac spots. At least two broods are laid per season. This is one busy bird! 

On my evening walk, I enjoy what I call the Towhee Serenade: two or three male towhees are singing from the brush, taking turns. The towhee makes several interesting sounds and I’ve heard him do one after the other in a single chorus: a simple trill, a whiny squawk, a chipping sound and my favorite, a metallic trill. It is an experience to hear a few of them singing together. 

I must warn you, birding is addictive! It’s also not easy. It has taken me years of listening, recording and searching the internet to be able to pick out individual bird songs and to recognize birds by sight. But I’m a slow learner and everyone has to start somewhere so if you’re interested, definitely pick up a digital recorder, some binoculars and a field guide to birds. And listen and look up!

Fox Sparrow
Green-tailed Towhee
Spotted Towhee