Illustration by Peter Burke
A widespread, abundant denizen of parks and gardens through most of coastal California, this species often occurs in pairs year-round, like the canyon and the Abert’s towhees. The California and the similar canyon were formerly conspecific, though they have never been known to overlap in range, even as vagrants. Polytypic. Length 9" (23 cm).
Identification Brownish overall; crown slightly warmer brown than rest of upperparts. Buff throat bordered by a distinct broken ring of dark brown spots; no dark spot on breast, unlike the canyon. Lores same color as throat, contrast with cheek; warm cinnamon undertail coverts . Juvenile: faint cinnamon wing bars; faint streaking below.
Geographic Variation Six subspecies in United States show weak and clinal variation in size and overall coloration. Generally, size decreases from north to south, with the 3 inland subspecies (bullatus, carolae, eremophilus) averaging larger than the 3 coastal subspecies (petulans, crissalis, senicula). Coloration is generally darker to the north and paler to the south, but is fairly dark in senicula of coastal southern California.
Similar Species See canyon and Abert’s Towhees.
Voice Call: sharp metallic chink notes; also gives some thin, lispy notes and an excited, squealing series of notes, often delivered as a duet by a pair. Song: Accelerating chink notes with stutters in the middle.
Status and Distribution Common. Resident; no known movements. Year-round: chaparral, coastal scrub, riparian thickets, parks, and gardens.
Population Stable, except for the federally threatened subspecies eremophilus, which is limited to Inyo County, California, and has declined due to degradation of its native riparian habitat; it may number fewer than 200 individuals.
—From the National Geographic book Complete Birds of North America, 2006
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