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STOP THE PRESSES. Grab the kids. Turn off the football game. My What’s This? nature challenge is back after a long break. The first person to name this organism wins $5 off any of my outings or lectures. I shot this one today in southwestern New Mexico. Yeah, it snowed here in the desert last night. More on that later. (It’s friggin’ gorgeous.)

Put your entry in the comments below. I’ll post the correct entries on Sunday (but not incorrect entries — so fear not). See the 19 other What’s This? challenges here. (Careful: answers are there too.)


ADDED JANUARY 4: We have a winner (well, two winners): Ruth Einstein, writing from Vermont, was first to identify this bird as Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus), the western cousin of the Eastern Towhee. But Ruth, my partner, is disqualified because, well, because these kinds of contests usually have disclaimers about family members winning. (Plus, Ruth was out here in the Southwest with me for a month.) Our next correct answer came from Judy (using only her first name, which is fine). Lots of you got this one, so my next What’s This? will be tough.

Those of you who named Rufous-sided Towhee might need to upgrade your birding field guide. We now recognize Spotted Towhee and Eastern Towhee as two separate species (formerly considered Rufous-sided Towhee). The split happened in 1995 (when many of us got life birds from the sofa). Some of the essential research on towhee taxonomy was done back in the 1950s and 1960s by George Sibley and Fred Sibley. Fred, now probably well into his 70s, spends much of his time chasing dragonflies (he’s come to his senses), is father of David Sibley, and is one of the nicest most engaging people you will ever meet. (Can’t believe I don’t have a photo of Fred and Peggy, a retired librarian.)

Here’s our bird, distinguished from the Eastern Towhee mostly by those spots on the wing coverts and scapulars (shoulder blades, if you will). But keep reading for more intrigue on these messy towhees and Sibleys.

Spotted Towhee / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Spotted Towhee in Gila, New Mexico on 3 Jan 2015 / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Here’s the thing about life on Earth — it’s not always so easily defined or stable. As it turn out, the earth has been shifting beneath the taxonomy of towhees for a century. At one point we recognized three distinct and geographically separated populations of these so-called spotted towhees — in Mexico, Saskatchewan, and California — each named as different species in the genus Pipilo.

You should feel happy that we now recognize only two formal North American species in this group. Within that Spotted Towhee complex, you’ll find at least nine subspecies (four subspecies of Eastern Towhee). They’re told apart — or not — by differences in the color of their plumage, the extent of their tail-spots, the length of the tails or wings, and the size of the bill and feet. (I myself usually don’t bother.)

If that isn’t crazy enough, a ton of the towhee work, as I had mentioned, came from Charles G. Sibley (1917-1998), who was at one time a graduate advisor — but unrelated — to Fred Sibley (David’s dad). Fred and Charles co-authored papers on towhees. It’s hard enough sorting out towhees, let alone Sibleys.

This edition of What’s This? drew 46 entries – a record. Those who got it right are listed below. Congratulations! And here’s an Eastern Towhee (lacking most of the spots) for good measure

[By the way, if you like what you see here on the blog, sign up for my email newsletter Natural Selections, which features fresh-picked news from the frontiers of wildlife science and from my own adventures in wild places.]

Eastern Towhee on Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Eastern Towhee on Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia / © Bryan Pfeiffer

36 comments
  1. Steve Sease says:

    Say what you like about obsessionist bird taxonomists and their name games, “rufous sided towhee” has a much nicer and more descriptive flair than “eastern towhee.” BO-ring. Why not refer to the eastern as rufous sided? Makes a nice descriptive companion name to the spotted towhee. Oh well, label me bad loser.

  2. martha Pfeiffer says:

    I’m in with the Spotted Towhee

  3. ann creaven says:

    looks like a spotted towhee to me, too

  4. Leslie Nulty says:

    Spotted Towhee

  5. Ginny Alfano says:

    Is it a Spotted Towhee?

  6. Nancy Mitiguy says:

    spotted towhee

  7. Jeffrey Allen says:

    Depends on who you believe? Follow?
    Personally I’d call it a Rufous Spotted Towhee.
    But when in the desert be like the desert dwellers and call it a Spotted Towhee.

  8. That looks like a Rufous-sided Towhee, Western race. Very pretty.

  9. Rollin Tebbetts says:

    Spotted towhee

  10. Louise giovanella says:

    I think this is a Spotted Towhee

  11. Ruth Stewart says:

    Spotted Towhee

  12. Philo Hall says:

    This is a Spotted Towhee. Its cousin, the Eastern Towhee is very common here in SW VA

  13. Elizabeth Cooper says:

    Could it be a Spotted Towhee?

  14. Claudia says:

    Spotted towhee?

  15. Sally says:

    Spotted Towhee

  16. Betsy Ziegler says:

    Our guess, based on a quick study of Sibley’s, is a Spotted Towhee. Hope you are having fun out there.

  17. Ann Lewis says:

    spotted towhee.

  18. Ann says:

    Spotted Towhee

  19. Isis Erb says:

    Spotted Towhee

  20. Laura says:

    Spotted Towhee.

  21. Lin Garrepy says:

    Spotted Towhee

  22. Terry Mosher says:

    Male Spotted Towhee

  23. Linda Gionti says:

    Spotted Towhee?

  24. Celeste Mazzacano says:

    Spotted towhee

  25. Lynn Wild says:

    Spotted Towhee

  26. raharlow2013 says:

    Sorry, its a Spotted Towhee

  27. Rob says:

    This is a Spotted Towhee (Papilo maculatus)!

  28. Thayer Maclay says:

    Spotted towhee!

  29. Judy says:

    looks like a spotted towhee

  30. Uh, is it a spotted Towhee? Do I win?

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