Towhees (Emberizidae Family)

Spotted Towhee; Photo courtesy of Jim Dunn © 2003 Jim Dunn Spotted (Pipilo maculatus) and California Towhees (P. crissalis) reside year-round in the riparian, oak woodland, and chaparral understories of Quail Ridge. While the Spotted is widespread throughout the western U.S. and all but the southern interior of California, the California Towhee is restricted to western California and Baja. At Quail Ridge, similar numbers of each have been found on the ridge, but the Spotted is more abundant in Decker Canyon.

Towhees are distinguished by their foraging behavior: using both feet in unison, a bird will scratch loose ground debris behind itself to reveal underlying food items. Both species are omnivorous, changing their diet from insects and arthropods in the breeding season to seeds and fruits in the non-breeding season. However, the Spotted is more insectivorous, and the California more granivorous. Both towhees also can be found foraging in mixed-species flocks with smaller sparrows during the winter.

California Towhee; Photo courtesy of Joyce Gross © 2005 Joyce GrossBreeding occurs mid-April to late May for these monogamous, highly territorial birds. The female Spotted Towhee builds a cup nest into the ground litter or upon elevated vegetation, typically at the edges of thickets. The California Towhee constructs a bulky stick nest in a shrub or low tree, typically never on the ground. Both females will lay 3-5 eggs. Spotted Towhees are commonly brood parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds and California Quail, while California Towhees are uncommon cowbird hosts. Western Scrub Jays, common king snakes, and California ground squirrels may also eat eggs.

Winter Sparrows (Emberizidae Family)Golden-crowned Sparrow; Photo courtesy of Joyce Gross © 2003 Joyce Gross

Quail Ridge serves as wintering grounds for three species of sparrow: Golden-crowned (Zonotrichia atricapilla), White-crowned (Z. leucophrys), and Fox (Passerella iliaca). Common throughout California, each inhabits riparian, chaparral, and deciduous undergrowth, ground foraging for insects, seeds, and berries. They breed in the northwestern U.S. or Canada, and each forms a cup nest on the ground or on low woody plants.

Throughout the winter, crowned sparrows congregate in stable mixed flocks of 10 to 50 birds that may or may not include other passerines. These sparrows show strong fidelity to their wintering grounds, often returning to the same site every year. Impetus for flocking likely includes predator defense and increased foraging efficiency.

White-crowned Sparrow; Courtesy of Joyce Gross © 2004 Joyce Gross

The White-crowned Sparrow has the widest North American distribution, while the Golden-crowned is restricted to the western-most U.S. and Canada. The White-crowned uniquely favors brushy, less forested areas and uses the most diverse array of hunting strategies: hawking, gleaning insects from surfaces, and ground foraging further from cover. It is less common at Quail Ridge than the Golden-crowned Sparrow.

Also widespread throughout the U.S. and Canada, the Fox Sparrow hosts multiple physically and behaviorally distinct populations. Two of these potentially overwinter at Quail Ridge the Sooty (common) and, Slate-colored (rare) races. These variants respectively breed in northern California north to Alaska along the coast and in the Interior Rocky Mountains. As with towhees, this large sparrow uses both feet to kick leaves aside to forage.

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Photo Credits: Title, California Quail, California Towhee, Golden-crowned Sparrow, and White-crowned Sparrow (Joyce Gross), Spotted Towhee (Jim Dunn), . For more pictures see:

This page last updated: April 5, 2007  

Contact: Dr. Virginia Boucher
John Muir Institute of the Environment
109 The Barn, University of California, Davis, CA 95616
Phone: 530-752-6949; email:

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