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    California Towhee Life History


    Habitat ScrubCalifornia 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.Back to top


    Food SeedsCalifornia 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.Back to top


    Nest Placement

    Nest ShrubCalifornia 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.

    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.

    Nesting Facts
    Clutch Size:2-5 eggs
    Number of Broods:1-3 broods
    Egg Length:0.9-1.0 in (2.2-2.5 cm)
    Egg Width:0.6-0.8 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.
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    Behavior Ground ForagerLook 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.Back to top


    Conservation Low ConcernCalifornia Towhee populations were stable between 1966 and 2015, with a possible small decline, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population at 9 million, with 61% living in the U.S. and 39% in Mexico. The species rates a 10 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. California Towhee is a U.S.-Canada Stewardship species, and is not on the 2016 State of North America's Birds Watch List. 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.Back to top

    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 out more about what this bird likes to eat and what feeder is best by using the Project FeederWatch Common Feeder Birds bird list.

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    Benedict, Lauren, M. R. Kunzmann, Kevin Ellison, L. Purcell, R. Roy Johnson and Lois T. Haight. 2011. California Towhee (Melozone crissalis), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

    Dunne, Pete. 2006. Pete Dunne's essential field guide companion: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

    Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2015.2. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2015.

    Partners in Flight. 2017. Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

    Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, Jr. Ziolkowski, D. J., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon and W. A. Link. The North American breeding bird survey, results and analysis 1966-2015 (Version 2.07.2017). USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center 2017.

    Sibley, David Allen. 2014. The Sibley guide to birds, second edition. Alfred A Knopf, New York.

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