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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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Songs

The song is given only by male California Towhees and is made up of repetitions of the bird’s metallic chip note. Songs typically start with a few well-spaced notes that rapidly accelerate into a trill and then stop abruptly. The whole song typically lasts 1-2 seconds.

Calls

The most frequently heard sound from California Towhees is a clear, metallic chip, similar to the sound of a Northern Cardinal (and also to the California ground squirrel). Males and females may call intermittently or in a monotonous string of chips every couple of seconds. When birds are alarmed, the chipping rate may triple. Mated pairs often face each other and give a rapid series of squeals and squeaks; this call is an important part of reinforcing the pair bond.

Search the Macaulay Library online archive for more sounds and videos

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.