The Abert’s Towhee

Wetlands Park Friends

Bounce and kick! Bounce and kick! What Bird looks like it’s jumping on a trampolene?

It’s an Abert’s Towhee (Pipilo aberti), looking for a meal! These pinkish-brown towhees share the family (Emberizidae) with other towhees, sparrows, juncos, and longspurs. They are common year-round residents at Clark County Wetlands Park. In fact, the Park is especially important habitat for them. The species has a limited range in riparian areas in the Southwest deserts, and much of its habitat has been destroyed by agriculture, water development, and urbanization.

Abert’s Towhees have pale conical bills that mark them as seed eaters. The bills contrast nicely with their blackish faces. When they turn to hop away, the rusty patch below the tail becomes visible. Abert’s Towhees spend over 50 percent of their time feeding on the ground for seeds and sometimes a tasty grub or two. 

Though they are often shy and secretive birds in wilder areas, they almost seem to have alternate personalities in the suburbs. Those that live in town are bolder, and readily come to eat at backyard bird feeders.  

At my parents’ house in Paradise Valley. AZ, in the 1970’s, the towhees weren’t at all shy. They lived in the surrounding mesquite and quail bush but came every day to our stable yard to pick on the grain our horses dropped. We loved to watch them bouncing and scratching, sometimes right under the horses’ feet, and called them “Bounce Birds” before we ever knew what they really were!

The characteristic bounce-and-scratch is called a “double scratch” or “bilateral scratch,” and is designed to kick leaves and other debris out of the way. Towhees may bounce once at a time, or perform a series of bounces without a break, sending debris flying behind them. The bird then looks very carefully at the ground around its feet for any treats it has uncovered!

Please enjoy these YouTube videos. Photo is by David Walker.