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California Towhee - BirdForum Opus

Photo © by Victor Vector
Silverwood Lake, California, USA, 18 March 2021
Melozone crissalis

Pipilo crissalis


Subspecies M. c. senicula
Photo © by Leslie
Newbury Park, Thousand Oaks, Ventura County, California, 17 January 2004

21–24 cm. (8¼-9½ in.)
A drab, chunky, long-tailed bird of dense thickets. Brown or brownish-gray overall with chestnut undertail coverts, throat and crown.

Similar Species

Both this species and its close relative the Canyon Towhee have reddish-brown undertail coverts. The California Towhee can be separated by the additional reddish-brown color on the bird's face and the faint streaking on the breast. The Canyon Towhee has a paler face pattern with more contrast and darker spots on the breast.


Subspecies M. c. petulans
Photo © by Joseph Morlan
Coyote Point Recreation Area, San Mateo, California, USA, 25 November 2018

Southern Oregon, California, and Baja California in Mexico.


Was formerly placed in genus Pipilo. Sometimes placed in genus Kieneria

Formerly considered conspecific with the Canyon Towhee under the name Brown Towhee.


Eight subspecies are recognized1:

  • M. c. bullata: Semi-arid south-western Oregon and extreme north-central California
  • M. c. carolae: Interior California (Humboldt County to Kern County)
  • M. c. petulans : Coastal northern California (Humboldt County to Santa Cruz County)
  • M. c. crissalis: Coastal central California (northern Monterey to Kern and Ventura counties)
  • M. c. eremophila: East-central California (Argus Mountains and north-western San Bernardino County)
  • M. c. senicula: Coastal southern California (Los Angeles County) and north-western Baja California
  • M. c. aripolia: Central Baja California (latitude 29°N to 26°30'N)
  • M. c. albigula: Cape district of southern Baja California

An additional subspecies wrangeli is generally considered invalid3.


Dense thickets, especially near water. The California Towhee has greater tolerance for human disturbance than the Spotted Towhee and will nest in built-up areas where bushes and ground cover are present.



Typically scratches on the ground with both feet at once. They will often run when disturbed rather than taking flight, and in urban areas, this bird will scurry beneath parked cars as if hiding in brush. Forages in leaf litter, often in pairs. The bird can often be heard scratching among the leaves long before it is visible.


Mostly seeds; also small animal items, including insects, millipedes (Diplopoda), spiders (Araneae) and snails (Gastropoda).


The typical call note is a loud and metallic pink. Song is a repeated in a series of typical call notes with varying whistled notes increasing in tempo.




  1. Clements, J. F., T. S. Schulenberg, M. J. Iliff, S. M. Billerman, T. A. Fredericks, B. L. Sullivan, and C. L. Wood. 2019. The eBird/Clements Checklist of Birds of the World: v2019. Downloaded from http://www.birds.cornell.edu/clementschecklist/download/
  2. 51st supplement to the AOU checklist of North American birds
  3. Benedict, L., M. R. Kunzmann, K. Ellison, L. Purcell, R. R. Johnson, and L. T. Haight (2020). California Towhee (Melozone crissalis), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.caltow.01
  4. Rising, J. (2018). California Towhee (Melozone crissalis). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from https://www.hbw.com/node/62018 on 26 November 2018).
  5. Avibase

Recommended Citation

External Links

GSearch checked for 2020 platform.