Crawlies with Cri: Green-tailed towhee

Green-tailed towhee (Pipilo chlorurus)

This week’s crawly takes the “wearing of the green” to heart – or rather to tail. Meet the green-tailed towhee (Pipilo chlorurus).
These colorful sparrows may look quite exotic, but they can be found right here in our own backyards.
What’s in a name? Their scientific name can be broken down to “chirping greenish yellow tail.” Pipilo is from the Latin pipo meaning chirp, twitter or peep. Chlorurus is from the Greek khloros meaning greenish yellow and oura means tail.
They aren’t a common bird in the valley, but there are sightings of them scattered throughout our area.
If you’d like to see a green-tailed towhee, you’ll have to wait a couple of months because they are migratory birds, traveling here from Mexico for the breeding season.
Green-tailed towhees are pretty particular about where they live; they like a specific habitat. They live in dense, shrubby areas, sometimes with scattered trees or cacti. They don’t like unbroken forested areas but may be found in higher elevation pinyon-juniper forests. They also like sagebrush habitats.
As you might have deduced by their habitat choices, green-tailed towhees are ground feeding birds. They like dense cover not only for the protection from predators, but for the insects that also like dense vegetation.
They feed via a double hop. They’ll hop forward then quickly back while scratching the ground and disturbing the leaf litter and critters in the litter. They also eat seeds and berries. Some of their favorite foods are pigweed, filaree, dandelion, and ricegrass seeds, berries such as serviceberry, elderberry and raspberry, and beetles, bees, wasps, caterpillars, moths, grasshoppers, bugs and flies.
Like many well-camouflaged, ground-dwelling birds, you’re most likely to first hear a green-tailed towhee. Then, if you’re very lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of one. Their call is described as “mew like.” You can take a listen here: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Green-tailed_Towhee/sounds and judge for yourself.
Both male and female green-tailed towhees look the same. If you spot one perched atop a shrub singing in spring, odds are he’s a male. Their young have much more subtle coloring, streaky browns and grays, but even early on will likely show a wash of their namesake green on their wings and tail.
Green-tailed towhees build sturdy and very well-hidden nests. They’ll build deep cup-shaped nests about knee high to a human, hidden deep in dense sagebrush, snowberry, chokecherry, raspberry, juniper or oak.
The females do the nest building over a period of two to five days. The main construction materials are twigs, plant stems and bark. Then the female will create a soft lining with grasses and hair. They’ll use hair from cows, horses, rodents and even porcupines.
A pair of green-tailed towhees will have one or two broods in a season, with up to five eggs in each brood. In a good year, that’s a lot of cute and colorful sparrow babies hopping about.
If a green-tailed towhee’s nest is threatened, the female will hop off and run away from the nest with her tail held high. It’s believed this mimics the appearance of a chipmunk darting away and will pull the predator’s focus from the vulnerable eggs or hatchlings. Unlike a scurrying chipmunk, the green-tailed towhee mother can take flight to escape and surprise the heck out of her pursuer.
So while you’re out and about this spring and summer, keep an ear out for that mewling call and with a bit of luck – green is a lucky color – you will get to see a green-tailed towhee going about their busy day.