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Green-tailed Towhee

Pipilo chlorurus ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: EMBERIZIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

There’s nothing quite like the color that gives the Green-tailed Towhee its name—a deep olive lightening to yellow-green on the edges of the wings and tail. Set off by a gray chest, white throat, and rufous crown, this large sparrow is a colorful resident of the West’s shrubby mountainsides and sagebrush expanses—if you can see one. They spend their time scratching at leaf litter under dense cover, occasionally popping into view to whistle a song or give a querulous mewing call.

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
7.2 in
18.4 cm
Wingspan
9.8 in
25 cm
Weight
1 oz
29 g
Relative Size
Larger than a Song Sparrow, smaller than an American Robin.

Cool Facts

  • If a predator approaches a Green-tailed Towhee nest, the female towhee may slip off her nest and run along the ground with her tail raised. Naturalists have suggested that this may mimic how a chipmunk runs, and distract the predator’s attention.
  • All sorts of things go into a bird’s nest. Green-tailed Towhees sometimes line the inside of their nest cup with porcupine hair.
  • The oldest known Green-tailed Towhee was at least 7 years, 8 months old when it was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in Arizona.

Habitat


Scrub

Green-tailed Towhees live in dense, shrubby habitat, sometimes with scattered trees or cacti. They usually do not live in unbroken forest but may occur in open pinyon-juniper forest or, at high elevations, amid scattered small conifers. The shrubby regrowth that appears 8–15 years after forest fires provides good towhee habitat. Some kinds of logging may produce similar dense, shrubby regrowth suitable for towhees. They also live in sagebrush shrubsteppe, often intermixed with shrubs and trees such as chokecherry, mountain mahogany, juniper, snowberry, and serviceberry. They may occur up to about 10,000 feet elevation. In winter they move to dry washes, arroyos, mesquite thickets, oak-juniper woodland, creosote bush, and desert grasslands, typically below about 4,000 feet elevation.

Food


Seeds

Green-tailed Towhees eat seeds and small insects. They forage on the ground, often using the “double-scratch” technique common to many ground-dwelling sparrows and towhees. This involves hopping forward and quickly backward again, scratching and overturning the leaf litter with both feet at the same time. As the bird lands, it quickly pecks at any food it has uncovered. Food items include pigweed, filaree, dandelion, and ricegrass seeds, berries such as serviceberry, elderberry, and raspberry, and beetles, bees, wasps, caterpillars, moths, grasshoppers, bugs, and flies.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–5 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Egg Length
0.7–1 in
1.8–2.6 cm
Egg Width
0.6–0.7 in
1.5–1.8 cm
Incubation Period
11–13 days
Nestling Period
11–14 days
Egg Description
Pale blue, speckled with reddish brown.
Condition at Hatching
Eyes closed and mostly naked except for sparse down; weighing about one-seventh of an ounce.
Nest Description

Females do all the nest building, taking 2–5 days to build a deep cup of twigs, plant stems, and bark, and lining it with grasses, fine stems, rootlets and hair, sometimes from horses, cows, and porcupine. The finished nest is about 6 inches across and 3 inches tall, with a cup that’s about 2.5 inches across and 1.5 inches deep.

Nest Placement

Shrub

Green-tailed Towhees conceal their nests at about knee height in very dense vegetation, in the low branches of sagebrush, snowberry, chokecherry, raspberry, juniper, oak, and other shrubs and small trees.

Behavior


Ground Forager

Green-tailed Towhees forage on the ground or in low, dense shrubs. Males begin to sing and defend territories soon after they arrive back on their breeding grounds. They chase off other males as well as Fox Sparrows, which share their habitat. To show aggression, males hop about or make low flights, sing, puff out their feathers, raise their crest, and shake their wings. Green-tailed Towhees form apparently monogamous pairs, although there may be some mating outside the pair bond. Males court females by offering a piece of nesting material, bowing, drooping his wings, and pointing his tail straight up. In winter, they associate in small groups and with wintering sparrows such as Brewer’s, Chipping, Black-throated, and White-crowned, as well as Spotted Towhee and Pyrrhuloxia. Their predators include many hawks and falcons, from American Kestrels to Northern Goshawks, as well as Long-eared Owls. Nest predators include jays, magpies, squirrels, weasels, chipmunks, skunks, and gopher snakes.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Green-tailed Towhees are fairly common and despite some local decreases, overall their populations were stable from 1966 to 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 4.1 million with 100% spending part of the year in the U.S. and 61% wintering in Mexico. The species rates a 10 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and is a U.S.-Canada Stewardship species. Green-tailed Towhee is not on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List. These birds are sensitive to habitat degradation in the vast sagebrush shrubsteppes of the interior West, much of which has been altered by grazing, agriculture, and changed fire regimes. In mountain forests, Green-tailed Towhees benefit from the shrubby communities that come along after forest fires, making proper fire management important for this and many other species.

Credits

Range Map Help

Green-tailed Towhee Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Short- to medium-distance migrant. Green-tailed Towhees migrate mainly at night to wintering grounds in the southwestern U.S. and throughout much of Mexico.

Find This Bird

Green-tailed Towhees can be secretive and hard to see. They live among low shrubs, so one of the best ways to find them is to visit a shrubby mountainside or sage flat during spring or early summer. Males will spend long periods perched at the tops of shrubs and singing. Their bright reddish-brown crowns (often peaked up into a short crest) are conspicuous, and the yellow-green wings and tail are distinctive. Listen, too, for their thin, ascending mew calls.

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