Abert's TowheeMelozone aberti

adult
Rick and Nora Bowers/VIREO
adult
Rick and Nora Bowers/VIREO
adult and nestlings
J. Hoffman/VIREO

Description

Along streams in the desert Southwest, a sharp pinging note in the thickets announces the presence of Abert's Towhee. If an observer tries to approach, a pair of these towhees may stay just ahead and out of sight, calling in an odd squealing duet when pressed too closely. When undisturbed, they feed on the ground under dense bushes, scratching among the leaf-litter. Many southwestern "specialty birds" have extensive ranges in the tropics, but this towhee barely gets across the border into northwestern Mexico.

Habitat

Desert streams, brush, mesquite. Typically found in dense brush near water in arid lowlands, as in streamside thickets, edges of ponds or irrigation ditches, understory of cottonwood-willow groves, even riverside marshes. In some areas (such as around Phoenix), comes into yards in well-watered suburbs. Overlaps in habitat with Canyon Towhee in some places, but Abert's stays closer to water in dense cover, avoiding dry open hillsides.

Feeding Diet

Mostly insects and seeds. Insects make up majority of diet, especially in summer; major items include beetles, ants, caterpillars, grasshoppers, and cicadas. Also eats many seeds, including those of saltbush, weeds, and grasses.

Feeding Behavior

Forages mostly on the ground, often scratching with both feet. Also forages on bark at base of trees, and in low bushes. Members of a pair often forage together.

Nesting

Members of pair remain together all year on permanent territories; courtship and pair formation may occur at any season, but nesting is mainly March through July. Both members of pair evidently defend nesting territory. Nest site is in dense shrub or tree such as mesquite, willow, baccharis, or elderberry, often well hidden within clump of mistletoe; usually 5-8' above the ground, but can be higher. Nest (built by female) is a bulky open cup, loosely made of weeds, bark strips, grass, leaves, vines, lined with dry grass and sometimes hair. Eggs: 1-4, usually 3. Pale blue or whitish with markings of dark brown and black. Incubation is apparently by female only, about 14 days. Young: Both parents feed the nestlings. Young leave nest about 12-13 days after hatching, before they are full-grown, but unable to fly for another week; tended by parents for a month or more. Often 2 broods per year.

Eggs

1-4, usually 3. Pale blue or whitish with markings of dark brown and black. Incubation is apparently by female only, about 14 days. Young: Both parents feed the nestlings. Young leave nest about 12-13 days after hatching, before they are full-grown, but unable to fly for another week; tended by parents for a month or more. Often 2 broods per year.

Young

Both parents feed the nestlings. Young leave nest about 12-13 days after hatching, before they are full-grown, but unable to fly for another week; tended by parents for a month or more. Often 2 broods per year.

Conservation

Still very common in parts of its limited range. Could be vulnerable to loss of streamside habitat.

Range

Permanent resident, rarely wandering even short distances away from favored habitat.

Listen

song
call

Similar Species

adult

Olive Sparrow

In brushy country of far southern Texas, this plain little sparrow moves about quietly in the undergrowth. With its secretive behavior and soft ticking callnotes, it often goes unnoticed at most seasons; in spring, however, its song of accelerating musical chips may be conspicuous. Despite the name, this bird is probably related more closely to the towhees than to our other sparrows; it often forages like a towhee, using its feet to scratch for food in the leaf-litter.

adult

Green-tailed Towhee

A catlike mewing call in the bushes may reveal the presence of the Green-tailed Towhee. Fairly common in western mountains in summer, this bird spends most of its time in dense low thickets, where it forages on the ground. Like other towhees, it scratches in the leaf-litter with both feet as it searches for food. It sometimes wanders east in fall, and strays may show up at bird feeders in winter as far east as the Atlantic Coast.

adult

California Towhee

Along the Pacific seaboard from southern Oregon to Baja, this plain brown bird is a common denizen of brushy places, from wild chaparral hillsides to the borders of gardens and city parks. California Towhees sometimes hide in the shrubbery, where they may be noticed mainly by their sharp callnotes and the squealing duets of mated pairs. At other times they come out on open ground, to scratch in the leaf-litter with both feet as they search for food.

adult

Canyon Towhee

In dry foothills and canyons in the interior of the Southwest, Canyon Towhees are common in the low brush. They spend most of their time on or near the ground, often scratching in the soil with both feet as they search for food. This bird and the California Towhee were once regarded as the same species, under the name of "Brown Towhee," but their voices are very different.

Vireo

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