Photo: Rick & Nora Bowers/Vireo

Abert's Towhee

Melozone aberti

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.
Conservation status Still very common in parts of its limited range. Could be vulnerable to loss of streamside habitat.
Family New World Sparrows
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.
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.
Photo Gallery
  • adult
  • adult
  • adult and nestlings
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.


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.

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.


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.

Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
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Migration

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

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Migration

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

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
Call is a single bell-like note. Song resembles a rapid series of call notes.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
Learn more about this sound collection.