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California Towhee Life History


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


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


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.

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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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


Low Concern

California Towhee populations were stable between 1966 and 2019, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population at 7.5 million and rates them 11 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of relatively low conservation concern. 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 the increase of invasive plants and excessive browsing by cattle, horses, and feral burros near streams and rivers.

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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, P. (2006). Pete Dunne's essential field guide companion. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, USA.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. (2020). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.

Partners in Flight. (2020). Avian Conservation Assessment Database, version 2020.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2019). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2019. Version 2.07.2019. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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