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Spotted Towhee
Spotted Towhee

The California Towhee’s
Extraordinary Routines

Aug 31, 2018
by Lisa Hug

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September is usually a time we get back into our regular routines. The kids go back to school and life seems pretty “normal.” Summer is over and the holidays aren’t here yet. It’s time to get serious about our work and get some things done.

And, what bird could seem more “normal” and “serious” than the California Towhee?

The California Towhee is an unassuming bird. It scurries around the ground in suburban neighborhoods inconspicuously, scratching for seeds and insects. It is often described as plain brown and drab, especially when compared to the more ornate Spotted Towhee. However, the California Towhee has some subtleties that are often overlooked. For instance, it has cinnamon-colored feathers under the tail. It also dons a charmingly understated matching necklace.

 Spotted Towhee - femaleThis bird of open woodlands and chaparral is also comfortably adapted to suburban life. Most of us have several pairs of California Towhees living in our neighborhood. It is a sedentary bird, staying in a relatively small territory for its entire life of around seven years.

You might say the California Towhee is “extraordinarily normal.” Whereas, most species of small songbird choose a new mate each annual breeding season, the faithful California Towhee is monogamous. It stays with its mate for a lifetime, sticking close to its chosen mate during all seasons of the year.

Many small songbirds migrate to Central America in the fall and return here in the spring. While these migratory birds are journeying several hundred miles twice annually, the California Towhee is with its mate in the same territory it held while nesting and raising its young. And while many local songbirds are traveling around in mixed-species flocks in the cold, wet, winter months in search of food, the California Towhee is right beside its mate. It gets all of its needs from its small, but well-chosen lifetime territory. You can often hear a faithful pair of towhees “talking“ to each other, each one exchanging “chink” notes to let the other one know of its whereabouts.

 The California Towhee’s year-round loyalty to its mate and territory is a very successful reproductive strategy. It allows it to have a very long breeding season, compared to migratory songbirds that choose new mates every spring. WhenMadrone Audubon Society conducted the Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas, volunteers collected records of California Towhees on nests as early as March 30 and as late as September 4. This means that their breeding season is long enough for each pair to be able to raise two broods in one season, with the added possibility of raising a third brood.

California Towhees are indeed “extraordinarily normal.” Their life-histories mimic many of our own lives. This makes them easy to relate to, and worth getting to know. So, try to find your local pair of towhees and see if you don’t find their “extraordinary normalness” endearing.

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