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Nursing a California towhee back to health. Submitted photo/Alyssa Schlange
Sometimes overlooked, the California towhee is everywhere. You just have to know where to look. Submitted photo/California Wildlife Center
Denys Hemen, Hospital Manager, California Wildlife Center
Denys Hemen, Hospital Manager, California Wildlife Center
6:12 am PDT August 9, 2020

Many brilliantly colored songbirds can be found in and around the Malibu area. From shiny, emerald Anna’s hummingbirds to bright orange-yellow Bullock’s orioles, we have it all.

Sometimes we overlook the less flashy species like the California towhee. These chunky brown sparrows almost disappear into the background. They are everywhere! You just need to know where to look.

The towhee thrive in chaparral scrublands that line the California and Oregon coast and in the foothills.  Last year, California Wildlife Center took in 43 California towhees — six were from Malibu and the surrounding area. These brown birds may not appear all that exciting at first, but watch them for a while and their personality will shine through.

California towhees spend more time on the ground than they do in the trees. They are adept at scurrying around, looking for insects and seeds. When you walk out into your yard, you may frighten one and see it run off or fly low for cover. Even their nests are built close to the ground, usually in tall shrubs. This fact causes many of these poor birds’ young to be “birdnapped.”

A towhee might happen to venture out from the nest at an early age and people will find the helpless fuzzy-headed baby, thinking it fell from a nest up high. If this happens to you, check to see if the baby bird can perch on your finger, has some feathers and can hop around. If it meets those criteria, please place the baby bird back in a bush or shrub as high as you can reach. Keep an eye out for the mother coming around to check on the baby and bring it food. This should happen within an hour or so.

Call CWC if you do not see a mom around for a few hours. Be sure to stay away from the area as California towhees can be skittish. This low-nesting behavior also makes young California towhees a prime target for outdoor cats. Outdoor cats are nearly tied with window strikes as the leading cause of major population declines in songbirds. Cats kill over a billion birds each year! The easiest way to help wild birds is by keeping your cat inside.

Got a pile of leaves laying around? California towhees cannot keep themselves from diving into it, looking for juicy bugs and seeds. They will scratch around and dig for a long time. It is so much fun to watch.

If a predator is spotted or another bird comes around, the California towhee will raise its crest and let out its amazing call! It sounds just like tennis shoes on a basketball court. These animals are quite territorial. The most you will ever see in the same area might be a mated pair. Many times, I have seen a California Towhee fighting its own reflection in a window. I have even seen one standing on a rear-view mirror, bending over, observing itself, then attacking its reflection repeatedly. 

Keep an eye out for one of these amazing birds the next time you go for a walk or step out into your yard.  I guarantee it will put a smile on your face. As always, if you ever find a wild animal that needs help, please call California Wildlife Center at 310-458-WILD.