The California Towhee
Guest post by Julia
My two favorite things about the California Towhee are a) it is found only in California and b) it looks completely unremarkable.
As a new but enthusiastic birder early in quarantine, “endemic” species automatically held the allure of the exclusive; to see a bird “endemic to California” is a privilege that most of the rest of the world will never have! I was excited to walk down the street and find The California Towhee, a bird people cross continents to glimpse, as casually as New Yorkers see pigeons or Minnesotans see lakes.
My wish was more than granted. Towhees weren’t just on my walk, they were in my yard, scratching at the ground. They were on my car’s side mirror, aggressively defending their territory from the evil twin in the reflection. They were on every telephone wire, bougainvillea, and patch of urban dirt. Congratulations - I had correctly identified (several dozen) California Towhees. I was completely underwhelmed.
Don’t blame me! Upon first glance, the California Towhee is completely brown, and not a romantic chestnut or glossy mahogany. They’re steely brown like dry dirt. “Dark scrub,” perhaps, or “low-tide sand.” Perfect for blending in with their surroundings, less suited for stunning HD photographs of your new hobby. Before I started birdwatching, I had likely seen thousands, but failed to notice the ubiquity of these small, modestly dressed neighbors.
Despite my disappointment that my local endemic species was not flashier, once I was able to identify them I ran into them everywhere. Around 5:00 p.m. in the spring, a Towhee takes up residence on the telephone wire on my street, always to the right or left of my house but rarely directly in line with the door. There is also one that likes to scratch around beneath my bedroom window about once a week – one stop on what must be their regular rounds. And of course, we must mention the Towhees that attack car mirrors. This habit is how many people identify their first Towhee, by Googling “why does this bird hate my car”. Thankfully, they’re neither mischievous nor malicious, and rarely cause any damage (to the car or themselves). They’re just upset that an Extremely Handsome bird has moved into their area, and I think that kind of self-confidence is something to strive for.
Nowadays, I love the California Towhee. Always one for the underdog, I can’t help but try to get people excited about an underappreciated bird. Plus, they served as a wonderful introduction to birdwatching. They’re distinctive, easy to identify, local, and abundant, and the rush of being able to suddenly identify a full third of the birds I saw encouraged me to keep learning. I became embarrassed by my initial reaction to their dowdiness – they are not Flame Bowerbirds, but then I am not Angelina Jolie, and yet I think I have something to offer the world. Moreover, they are endemic to California, my home, and are surviving in a drought-heavy, fire-prone, rapidly changing climate. I can only hope such resilience for other underappreciated residents of California.
Notes and Resources:
*I am not quite fair to the California Towhee when saying it is totally brown; they can have some lovely cinnamon/rust patches on their face and under their tail. You’ll only notice if you’re looking, though!
*For more information about the California Towhee, including range, habits, and the effect of climate change, see the National Audubon Society’s field guide: https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/california-towhee