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April 7, 2014

California Towhees in the Nature Gardens

Have you ever seen this bird?

California Towhee visits the Natural History Museum. Image courtesy of Kimball Garrett

Okay, so unless you are a birder type, you may look at this picture and think, "How the heck do I know? It just looks like a dull, brown bird to me." This is almost exactly what I thought when I saw the picture in my inbox recently. However, after reading the e-mail it was sent in, I realized this is a bird I see, and hear, in Griffith park all the time. You see, this bird can be much easier to identify when it is alive—scratching around in the leaf litter in front of your eyeballs, and chirping away close to your earholes.

First rule of bird nerd club, you gotta look at more than just color and pattern!

Kimball, teaches this and an array of other tricks and tips during the many birding trips he leads for the Museum, Audubon chapters, and other groups.

Another thing Kimball has been doing at the Museum is taking data on the birds of the Nature Gardens by conducting weekly "area search" surveys, counting all birds on the garden grounds. These surveys rely on his acute ability to identify birds quickly by sight and sound. He can accurately identify what, to you and I, looks like a black flying speck from 50 feet, or sounds like a small chirrup in the cacophony or urban sounds.

It was on one of Kimball's recent surveys that he took the image above of a California Towhee, Melozone crissalis, in the Nature Gardens' "urban wilderness." Unfortunately, since male and female California Towhees are identical visually and this one wasn't singing (only the males of this species sing) we'll never never know if this one was a boy or girl!

Here's Kimball to tell us a bit more about the significance of the sighting:

"Although this is a common and familiar bird in natural brushy habitats and in suburban residential yards and parks, it is largely absent from the most urbanized portions of the L.A. Basin.  As a ground-foraging species it is especially susceptible to predation by feral cats (etc.), collisions with automobiles, and other urban mortality factors. This towhee was high on my list of “target species” that the Nature Gardens might attract.  Even though one sighting of a single individual doesn’t mean much yet, it is a start and we might someday get a population of towhees in the park. The two previous sightings of California Towhee in Exposition Park (30 Aug 1982, and spring 1996) were of single birds that did not stick around, and those pre-date the establishment of any usable habitat for the species in the park."

Wow, so this is the first time a California Towhee has been documented in the park in over 17 years! The question is, will this towhee stick around? Unfortunately, as far as we know, the bird hasn't been seen since Kimball took the picture. He saw it fly off into the brush, and like that, it disappeared. Maybe, this individual towhee was just passing through, but I like to think that he (okay it could have been a girl, like I said above) was checking out our accomodations. Maybe he'll tell all his buddies about the garden, or if we're lucky he'll bring back a girlfriend and have babies, just like some Bushtits, Psaltriparus minimus, are doing.

Apparently, bushtits are quite partial to Hershey's Kisses! Come and visit the Nature Gardens so you can check out the nest for yourself, and of course keep your eyes open for the towhees!

 



Posted by:Lila Higgins

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