- 8.3–9.8 in
- 11.4 in
- 1.3–2.4 oz
- Slightly larger than a Spotted Towhee; slightly smaller than a robin.
- Toqui californiano (Spanish)
- Tohi de Californie (French)
- Brown Towhee (in part) (English)
- 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.
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.
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.
- Clutch Size
- 2–5 eggs
- Number of Broods
- 1-3 broods
- Egg Length
- 0.9–1 in
- Egg Width
- 0.6–0.7 in
- 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.
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.
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.
© René Corado / WFVZ
© René Corado / WFVZ
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.
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.
- Kunzmann, M. R., K. Ellison, K. L. Purcell, R. R. Johnson, and L. T. Haight. 2002. California Towhee (Pipilo crissalis). In The Birds of North America, No. 632 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America Online, Ithaca, New York.
- Dunne, P. 2006. Pete Dunne’s essential field guide companion. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
Partners in Flight. 2012. Species assessment database.
- USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. 2011. Longevity records of North American Birds.
- USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. 2012. North American Breeding Bird Survey 1966–2010 analysis.
Resident. Some birds move uphill from chaparral breeding grounds to foothills, then return to lower elevations in winter.
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.
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.
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!