Family New World Sparrows (Passerellidae)

Least Concern

California Towhee (Melozone crissalis)


French: Tohi de Californie German: Kaliforniengrundammer Spanish: Toquí californiano

Fringilla crissalis


, 1839,

no locality = Monterey, Monterey County, California, USA


Molecular analysis indicates that present species and M. aberti are sister-taxa. Previously treated as conspecific with M. fusca. Geographical variation slight, and to some extent clinal; in California, petulans intergrades with nominate in Santa Cruz County and nominate intergrades with senicula in interior and SE, while specimens of carolae from C California show tendency towards senicula. Also, bullata, carolae and eremophila all similar to nominate and perhaps better subsumed therein; further, bullata possibly invalid, purported characters being possibly due to comparison of reddish “foxed” specimens with newer “unfoxed” ones, and, similarly, carolae difficult to characterize. Proposed race kernensis (described from Kelso Valley, in Kern County, California) is treated as a synonym of carolae. Eight subspecies tentatively recognized.

Subspecies and Distribution
  • M. c. bullata (Grinnell & Swarth, 1926) – SW Oregon S to extreme NC California, in W USA.
  • M. c. petulans (Grinnell & Swarth, 1926) – N California in coastal zone from Humboldt County S to Marin County.
  • M. c. crissalis (Vigors, 1839) – C coastal California from N Monterey County E to W edge of San Joaquin Valley, S to W Kern County and Ventura County.
  • M. c. carolae (McGregor, 1899) – interior California from Humboldt County S to Napa County and E to foothills of Cascades and Sierra Nevada, S on E side of San Joaquin Valley to Kern County.
  • M. c. eremophila (van Rossem, 1935) – Argus Mts, in Inyo County (California).
  • M. c. senicula (Anthony, 1895) – C coastal California (San Luis Obispo County), and San Joaquin Valley, S to extreme NW Mexico (NW Baja California).
  • M. c. aripolia (Oberholser, 1919) – C Baja California from 28°55’ N S to Guajademi (26°35’ N).
  • M. c. albigula (S. F. Baird, 1860) – S Baja California S from c. 26°35’ N.
  • Descriptive notes

    21–24 cm; 46·3–61·2 g (male average 53·9 g, female average 51·8 g). Large, long-tailed, nearly uniformly brown sparrow. Nominate race... read more


    Song a series of staccato notes, accelerating in speed, “tss tss tss tsurr tsurr” or... read more


    Brushy hillsides, shrubby thickets, streamside thickets, chaparral, especially chamise (... read more

    Food and feeding

    Diet principally seeds; also small animal items, including insects, millipedes (Diplopoda), spiders (Araneae) and snails (Gastropoda), and... read more


    Season mid-Mar to end Jun; double-brooded. Maintains pair-bond and is territorial throughout year. Nest constructed by female, a loosely... read more


    Mainly resident. Some post-breeding upslope movements detected in some areas of California;... read more

    Status and conservation

    Not globally threatened. Race eremophila designated as “Threatened” and protected under the Endangered Species Act in the USA since 1987. Otherwise,... read more

    Recommended citation

    Rising, J. (2020). California Towhee (Melozone crissalis). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from on 24 February 2020).