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Help develop a Bird ID tool!

California Towhee

Melozone crissalis ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: EMBERIZIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Your first encounter with a California Towhee may be prompted by a tireless knocking at your window or car mirror: these common backyard birds habitually challenge their reflections. But California Towhees are at heart birds of the tangled chaparral and other hot scrublands of California and Oregon. You’re as likely to hear their bright chip notes along a secluded trail as on your way out your front door. If you live in the Southwest, look for this bird’s twin, the Canyon Towhee.

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Keys to identification Help

Sparrows
Sparrows
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    California Towhees are essentially large sparrows, with a sparrow’s short, rounded wings, long tail, and thick, seed-cracking beak – but towhees are larger and bulkier. The long tail and short wings can give this bird an ungainly look in flight.

  • Color Pattern

    Few birds are as uniformly matte brown as a California Towhee. A patch under the tail (called the crissum, giving the bird its scientific name) is a noticeably warmer ruddy brown. Males look the same as females.

  • Behavior

    California Towhees hop or run on the ground but tend to stay close to the protection of low shrubs and trees. When not foraging they may perch on shrubs, rooftops, and backyard fences, to sit and chip for long periods. In flight they look out of practice, using lots of wingpower to travel short distances.

  • Habitat

    California Towhees live in chaparral and other tangled, shrubby, and dry habitats. They’re also at home in the small backyards and neighborhood parks of lowland California towns.

Range Map Help

California Towhee Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult

    California Towhee

    Adult
    • Gray-brown overall
    • Short, conical bill
    • Warm, reddish brown eyering and face
    • Long brown tail
    • © Jamie Chavez , Santa Maria, California, February 2007
  • Adult

    California Towhee

    Adult
    • Speckling on throat
    • Warm brown crown
    • Reddish brown undertail coverts
    • Often forages on ground
    • © Lorcan Keating , Golden Gate Park, California, January 2009
  • Adult

    California Towhee

    Adult
    • Gray-brown overall
    • Short, conical bill
    • Warm, reddish brown eyering and face
    • Long brown tail
    • © Eric Rosenberg , Alum Rock Park, San Jose, California, May 2007
  • Adult

    California Towhee

    Adult
    • Short, conical bill
    • Streaked throat
    • Long brown tail
    • Warm brown throat
    • © Lorcan Keating , Golden Gate Park, California, February 2009
  • Adult

    California Towhee

    Adult
    • Gray-brown overall
    • Warm, reddish brown eyering and face
    • Reddish brown undertail coverts
    • © Lorcan Keating , San Fransisco, California, February 2009
  • Adult

    California Towhee

    Adult
    • Gray-brown overall
    • Reddish brown undertail coverts
    • Warm, reddish brown eyering and face
    • © davidkmcd , February 2008

Similar Species

  •  

    Canyon Towhee

     
    • Very similar to California Towhee
    • Contrasting rufous crown and pale buffy throat
    • Does not occur in California Towhee's geographic range
    • © Larry Meade, Mammoth, Arizona, July 2006
  • Adult

    Abert's Towhee

    Adult
    • Dark face with pale bill
    • Pinkish brown breast
    • Very little range overlap
    • © Sam Wilson, Scottsdale, Arizona, December 2008
  • Adult female

    Brown-headed Cowbird

    Adult female
    • Grayish brown overall
    • Pale throat
    • No red on face or undertail
    • Fairly short tail
    • © Beth Graham, Woodstown, New Jersey, February 2009
  • Adult

    California Thrasher

    Adult
    • Pale throat and eyebrow, mottled cheek
    • Long, downcurved black bill
    • Gray above, dull orangish below with grayer breast
    • © Eric Rosenberg, Los Altos, California, April 2008
  • Adult female

    Dark-eyed Junco

    Adult female
    • Pale underparts contrast with darker upperparts
    • Variably brown or gray upperparts
    • Pale bill
    • White outer tail feathers
    • © mworthi245, Georgia, January 2009
  • Adult Sooty

    Fox Sparrow

    Adult Sooty
    • Dark reddish brown or grayish wings and tail
    • Dark spotting on white breast
    • Yellowish bill
    • © niecke's nature, Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, December 2008
  • Adult

    Hermit Thrush

    Adult
    • Grayish brown upperparts with reddish tail
    • White underparts and spotted breast
    • Thin black bill with pale base
    • © Laura Erickson, June 2007

Similar Species

Canyon and Abert's towhees are similar, but they are birds of the inland Southwest; they don't occur in the California Towhee's range. Abert's Towhee is warmer brown, with black around the beak. California Thrashers have the same overall color (even the warm brown under the tail) but they have a longer tail and a strongly downcurved beak. Juvenile Spotted Towhees are streaky rather than plain, and lack the California's warm brown under the tail and at the throat.

Backyard Tips

You can encourage California Towhees to come out in the open in your backyard by offering seed (including millet, which is unpopular with many other backyard birds). Towhees are ground foragers, so spreading seed on the ground or in trays Is more likely to attract them than hanging feeders.

Find This Bird

If you live in California, there’s a good chance you can see a California Towhee on a walk around your neighborhood. Listen for a loud, sharp, metallic chip, then scan nearby shrubs, the ground below them, and exposed perches like fenceposts and eaves. Another clue is car mirrors and windowsills covered with bird droppings - a good sign that a California Towhee has become obsessed with chasing off its reflection and will return frequently.

Get Involved

California Towhees are one of the most frequently reported species for California residents who participate in Project Feederwatch and the Great Backyard Bird Count. Join Project FeederWatch and the GBBC and add your own sightings to the list!

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Project FeederWatch’s tips for feeding birds in your backyard

Explore comprehensive information on California Towhees and other birds in The Birds of North America Online from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and American Ornithologists' Union for as little as $5.