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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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Funky Nests

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
8.3–9.8 in
21–25 cm
Wingspan
11.4 in
29 cm
Weight
1.3–2.4 oz
37–67 g
Relative Size
Slightly larger than a Spotted Towhee; slightly smaller than a robin.
Other Names
  • Toqui californiano (Spanish)
  • Tohi de Californie (French)
  • Brown Towhee (in part) (English)

Cool Facts

  • Taxonomists used to consider the California Towhee and the almost identical Canyon Towhee the same species, the Brown Towhee. The Abert’s Towhee looks quite different from these two species, but evidence suggests it may actually be the California Towhee’s closest relative, rather than the Canyon Towhee.
  • Poison oak is one of the hazards of outdoor recreation in California. It lines trails and covers hillsides, seemingly lying in wait to inflict its itchy, weeping rash on the unwary. But it’s also an integral part of the landscape and part of the daily life of California Towhees. Many towhees build their nests in poison oak and feast on the plant’s copious crops of pale white berries.
  • The Inyo California Towhee is restricted to riparian habitat in the Argus Mountains of central California. It is threatened by the destruction of the habitat, largely the result of foraging by feral burros.
  • The oldest known California Towhee was 12 years, 10 months old.

Habitat


Scrub

California Towhees are birds of the dense chaparral scrub that lines coastal slopes and foothills of California and southern Oregon. They also occur along streams and canyon bottoms adjacent to desert slopes, where they live amid manzanita, buckthorn, madrone, foothill pines, and a variety of oaks. As cities and suburbs sprang up in California, towhees moved right in to shrubby backyards and city parks.

Food


Seeds

California Towhees eat mostly seeds from many kinds of grasses and herbs, supplemented with insects (mostly beetles and grasshoppers) during the breeding season. They also eat berries such as elderberry, coffeeberry, and poison oak, acorns, and garden produce like peas, plums, and apricots. May also eat spiders, millipedes, and snails. Eats millet, among other seeds, at feeders.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–5 eggs
Number of Broods
1-3 broods
Egg Length
0.9–1 in
2.2–2.5 cm
Egg Width
0.6–0.7 in
1.6–1.9 cm
Incubation Period
11–14 days
Nestling Period
6–11 days
Egg Description
Pale blue-white to creamy white, sparsely spotted or blotched with dark brown or purplish-black.
Condition at Hatching
Naked except for sparse, wispy down feathers; eyes closed.
Nest Description

The female builds the nest while the male watches. She typically works on the nest in the morning, weaving an outer cup from twigs, grasses, dried flowers, and sometimes trash such as plastic ribbons. This she lines with animal hair, strips of sagebrush bark, and downy seeds. The finished nest is about 8 inches across and 1.5 inches deep.

Nest Placement

Shrub

California Towhees typically build their nests in a low fork (3-12 feet high) in a shrub or small tree. Common species include live oaks; Ceanothus, coffeeberry, and other shrubs of the chaparral; poison oak; willow; eucalyptus; and many ornamental shrubs and trees.

California Towhee Nest Image 1
© René Corado / WFVZ

California Towhee Nest Image 2
© René Corado / WFVZ

Behavior


Ground Forager

Look for California Towhees doing the classic towhee foraging maneuver, the double-scratch. When feeding on the ground, these birds look under leaves by lunging forward and then quickly hopping backward, scratching at the ground with both feet as they go. After one of these moves, the bird is poised to pounce on any food it sees. To eat grass seeds, towhees may also hold onto a stem and strip seeds off all at once with the beak.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Over most of their range California Towhees are common and their numbers have been stable since 1966, according to the North American Beeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 9 million, with 61 percent living in the U.S. and 39 percent in Mexico. They rate a 9 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2012 Watch List, although they are a U.S.-Canada Stewardship species. An isolated subspecies of the California Towhee that lives in the Inyo Mountains of eastern California is down to fewer than 200 individuals and listed as federally threatened. Habitat destruction is the bird’s main threat, due in part to excessive browsing by cattle, horses, and feral burros.

Credits

Range Map Help

California Towhee Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Resident. Some birds move uphill from chaparral breeding grounds to foothills, then return to lower elevations in winter.

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.