California Towhee

Pipilo crissalis
Range Map

The California Towhee lives in western California, southern Oregon, and Baja California. These birds are as comfortable in rugged rural brush and chaparral as they are in urban parks or suburban gardens. Like other towhees, we rarely find these birds as singles, but always in pairs year round.

These birds are intimately familiar to me and have been since my earliest childhood. As a common yardbird, I’ve been able to observe them at home and many of my favorite birding locations in San Diego County.

Many years ago, because of their similarity, these and three other towhees, the Abert’s, Canyon and White-Throated Towhee (from southern Mexico) were lumped together as “Brown Towhee.” This quartet looks and sounds similar to each other, but each has its own geographic distinction. Science has waged a debate on this topic for a hundred years, but now genetic analysis seems to have settled the matter.

Today, science recognises eight subspecies of California Towhee. (Refer to the Range Map here for the regions where each member lives.)

  • M. c. petulans lives in coastal northern California from Humboldt County south to the San Francisco Bay.
  • M. c. crissalis lives in southwestern Oregon and in California from inland Humboldt County south to coastal central California from Monterey County east to the San Joaquin Valley, and to Kern and Ventura Counties. There is also a population in the Argus Mountains in Inyo County near the border with Nevada.
  • M. c. seniucla lives coastally from Los Angeles County, California, south to northwestern Baja California (Mexico).
  • M. c. aripolia lives in the middle of the Baja California peninsula.
  • M. c. albigula lives in southern Baja California (Mexico).
  • M. c. bullata lives from southwestern Oregon to north-central California.
  • M. c. carolae lives in the California interior from Humboldt County south to Napa County, and east to the foothills of the Cascades and Sierra Nevada mountains, and on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley into Kern County.
  • M. c. petulans lives in northern California along the coastal zone from Humboldt County south to Marin County.

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