Bird-Watching: The California Towhee, Boldly Bland

Mathew Tekulsky
The Birdman of Bel Air
October 28, 2003

Mathew Tekulsky writes a regular column about birding in his backyard and neighborhood in Bel Air, California. You can follow his encounters with the birds of the Santa Monica Mountains here on National Geographic News BirdWatcher every fortnight or so.

On the surface, the California towhee is such a nondescript bird that you almost wonder why it has any reason for being. But if you look under the surface of this bird, you will discover that it has quite an interesting coloration pattern and personality.

For instance, although the bird appears to be all brown, you will notice on closer observation that its throat is a cinnamon color with brown spots, and it has a distinctive rufous coloration on its vent and undertail coverts.

The California towhee pokes around on the ground most of the time, looking for insects and seeds to eat. But ever since I started serving unshelled peanuts to my scrub jays, the towhees in my yard have become peanut aficionados.

Here's how it happens. First, the most aggressive scrub jay flies to a perch on a chair outside my TV room. He waits patiently for me to throw out a peanut, which I do. He then flies off down the canyon to store the peanut and then return for more. By the time the scrub jay has returned for his second peanut, who comes hopping out from behind the patio table or around the corner from my side yard but a California towhee.

Now, the California towhee can see that the scrub jay is taking peanut after peanut and flying off, and the towhee wants a piece of this action. The only problem is, he either can't or doesn't know how to peck open the shell to get at the peanut. However, he has me trained by now to unshell the peanut for him and throw out the kernels.

But even this isn't good enough for the towhee. He actually prefers half of an unshelled peanut kernel, around which he can easily clamp down with his beak. Then he goes running off behind the patio table or around to the side yard, with the yellowish-beige peanut kernel held firmly in his beak.

For a while, I had a lame California towhee (photo) popping around my yard, letting out his high-pitched peep…peep…peep from time to time. This poor fellow had a left leg that splayed out horizontally from the tarsus area, and he hobbled around on that leg with some degree of difficulty.

I really felt for this fellow, and I took great pleasure in serving up Cheerios for this towhee all the time (California towhees love Cheerios.) The Cheerio makes a crackling sound as the towhee bites into it, consuming the smaller and smaller pieces until it's all gone.

I used to wonder how long this crippled towhee would survive in the wild, and I prided myself on extending his lifespan as best I could. But after a while, he just stopped showing up.

I really miss that towhee.

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