April species: California Towhee
Scientific name: Pipilo crissalis
Sounds: California Towhee morning vocalizations and two types of song (1, 2).
About this column>>
California Towhee Pipilo crissalis
Photo credit: sgrace
When I posted my medley of dawn-songsters last month, I made one important omission. The California Towhee (Pipilo crissalis) is not common in the city, not even in Golden Gate Park. It is, however, very, very common in slightly less urban regions of the Bay Area, such as my neighborhood in Berkeley. In places where it is common, the California Towhee’s vocalizations are a significant component of the dawn chorus.
I recorded this dawn vocalization of the California Towhee in my neighborhood a few days ago. It could be described as an incessant series of short, high-pitched, evenly spaced, metallic notes.
The song of the California Towhee is very similar to this dawn vocalization—it begins with a similar series of metallic notes, but accelerates to a “trill” towards the end of the song. Here is an example I recorded this week in Aquatic Park in Berkeley. (I’m afraid my recording is very soft! You may have to turn up the volume on your computer speakers.) In an alternative version of the song, not only does the song accelerate to a trill towards the end, but, also, abruptly in the middle of the “trill,” the pitch drops and the timbre (or quality of the sound) changes. (This trill almost sounds like two different orchestral instruments: a series of fast high-pitched notes immediately followed by a series of slightly lower-pitched notes on another instrument.)
California Towhees are often underappreciated by birdwatchers, because they are very common, and more or less brown all over. However, the California Towhee is actually very special. For one thing, despite its being common, it has a rather restricted range: It occurs only in coastal California and Baja California (with a small population in southwestern Oregon). Drive to the Sierra Nevada, and you’re completely outside its range—so, we should feel lucky that we encounter it at all! Also, on closer look, this very brown bird is quite pretty. Note, in the pictures on this blog, the orange vent (the area under the base of the tail), as well as the “necklace” of dark spots on its chest.
Pair of California Towhees, Pipilo crissalis
Photo credit: sgrace
Unfortunately, there is one vocalization of the California Towhee that I did not manage to record: its duet. Duets are coordinated vocalizations by two birds, often the male and female of a mated pair. In some species that perform duets, the result is incredible! For example, check out this recording of a pair of Musician Wrens (Ciphorhinus arada) from South America (care of the Brazilian government). Note that what sounds like the song of one bird is actually a series of notes alternating between the male and the female. The duet of the California Towhee isn’t quite this melodious! However, it is exciting nonetheless: it consists of a series of loud, descending, accelerating “squeals.”
A researcher from the University of California, Berkeley, Dr. Lauryn Benedict, was awarded a PhD for her work on the duets of California Towhees. Among her results, if I remember correctly, were that either the male or the female may initiate the duet, and that a duet may start with the two birds far apart, but always ends up with the two birds right next to each other. Mates can distinguish each other’s vocalizations from those of other individuals, but despite an exhaustive analysis of their duets, Dr. Benedict did not find what character they used to be able to do so! I guess, for now, it remains a mystery.
California Towhees have some behaviors that are fun to watch. According to Dr. Benedict, two pairs of towhees will sometimes engage in territorial dispute, employing such tactics as singing duets and posturing with sticks. It is very common to see towhees fighting their own reflections in the rims and hubcaps of car wheels, or, as in the picture below, in car mirrors!
Towhee fighting its image in a mirror!
Photo credit: Kevin Cole
I will attempt to obtain a recording of California Towhee duets and post it to the blog in the future. In the meantime, try to imagine what they sound like—maybe even go outside and try to “discover” this sound on your own!
Your homework assignment: Listen to check if California Towhees occur in your neighborhood. Also look for them and see if you can distinguish some of the details of their plumage—the orange vent and the “necklace” of dark spots. If you feel motivated, go out and observe them—see if they do anything interesting. Maybe you’ll even get to see (and hear) them performing a duet!
[PLEASE NOTE: I have posted an update to this blog, which includes a recording of a California Towhee duet, care of Dr. Lauryn Benedict!]