A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


California Towhee is common throughout the county, except in the most densely wooded areas, and perhaps somewhat less common right at the coast. You're likely to see this bird in any open area with shrubs and woods nearby, including suburbs, city parks, and on agricultural land. Often first recognized by its loud, bright, chip note. In the spring and early summer, California Towhee sings a more complicated song--one or two of the chip notes (teek!) followed by series of faster notes of the same pitch at diminishing intervals, which may suggest the "bouncing ball" song of Wrentit, and then a short trill at the end at a lower pitch, with the last notes often raspy or guttural.

Overall, drab brownish-grey, with the upper parts and tail somewhat darker than the rest of the bird, the head and throat washed or lightly marked with warmer tones, and distinctly rufous under the tail. A series of darker spots above the breast, at the base of the neck is often hard to see. Male and female birds look alike. Often in pairs or groups of 2-3 pairs. Typically foraging on the ground, often running. Also commonly in low shrubbery or other cover or resting in the lower branches of trees. Sometimes (but not often) perched high in trees (mainly in the spring, during the breeding season). Territorial. Like Spotted Towhee, California Towhee will even defend against its own reflection--in car mirrors, wheel covers, or, at my house, in the stainless steel crusher we use during the grape harvest season. Unlikely to be confused with any other bird. If it looks like a drab, brownish-grey, oversized sparrow, it's probably California Towhee, even if you can't see the rufous under the tail or any of the fairly subtle head markings. Typically has two broods a year.

Older books (and older birders) may refer to this bird as Brown Towhee. This species (which became California Towhee) and a close relative (which became Canyon Towhee, Melozone fusca), were formerly considered the same bird, although there is very little overlap in their ranges (if any). California Towhee was recently moved to the genus Melozone, from Pipilo, in 2011. Older sources will call California Towhee Pipilo crissalis.

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 112

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 453

Burridge, ed., Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas, 1995, p. 158

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 404

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 462

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, p. 587

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 564 (as Brown Towhee)

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 325

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 417

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 378

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, pp. 248-249

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 67

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 326

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 330

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 405

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 654

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 467

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--California Towhee



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


California Towhee, Ramal Rd. Sonoma County, May 1, 2012

California Towhee

Melozone crissalis

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated May 30, 2013

EBird reported occurrence in Sonoma County