Abert Towhee, Melozone aberti

Original descriptionPipilo aberti Baird 1852

eBird range map

Taxonomic history at Avibase

Taxonomic history in AOU/AOS Check-list 

AOU 1 (1886): Abert’s Towhee, Pipilo aberti

AOU 2 (1895): Abert’s Towhee, Pipilo aberti

AOU 3 (1910): Abert’s Towhee, Pipilo aberti

AOU 4 (1931): Abert’s Towhee, Pipilo aberti

AOU 5 (1957): Abert’s Towhee, Pipilo aberti aberti, Pipilo aberti dumeticolus

AOU 6 (1983): Abert’s Towhee, Pipilo aberti

AOU 7 (1998): Abert’s Towhee, Pipilo aberti

IUCN Conservation Status: Of least concern

Noisy Abert Towhees are often among the first birds visitors to southeastern Arizona encounter; if they are not at least heard in brushy native plantings on the way to the car rental agency, they will certainly be seen at many of the traditional sites on the birder’s pilgrimage route. That easily gained familiarity, and the species’ relative abundance in the urban wetlands, feeders, and parks visiting birders also frequent, can mask the essential vulnerability of the Abert Towhee, extremely limited in its range and habitat preferences.

Abert Towhees occupy the same desert riparian forests as the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher and Southwestern Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and local populations decrease greatly when vegetation is cleared or water flow diminished. The results of such habitat change are particularly evident on the lower Colorado River and on some stretches of the Gila River. 

Encouragingly, Abert Towhees take full advantage of new or restored habitat where it is available, such as in urban mitigation wetlands managed for wildlife. They are also accepting of human development as long as dense vegetation is preserved in nearby washes.     

Behavior: This is by far the shyest of the brown towhees. Where the other species retreat only when approached very close or startled, it requires very little disturbance to send Abert Towhees into their tangled fastnesses, where they cower for long minutes at a time, revealing their presence only with an occasional trilling seee

Birds inhabiting suburban yards and urban wetlands can grow more confiding, and will often feed in the open, unconcerned by the quiet presence of humans. Feeding birds scratch in fallen leaves and litter or hop from bare patch to bare patch in search of seeds and insects; they even clamber clumsily up posts or tree trunks to cling at improbable angles to suet feeders, which they defend vigorously against smaller birds. 

The flight of the Abert Towhee is quite strong and maneuverable, though it rarely takes the bird more than a few feet off the ground. As these long-tailed, round-winged birds swoop into riparian vegetation, they may bring to mind a thrasher. Only the Crissal Thrasher approaches the Abert Towhee in the darkness of its plumage, but the thrasher’s longer tail, longer wings, and overall slender build are usually apparent in even the briefest views. Abert Towhees usually begin to call not long after disappearing into the vegetation, while Crissal Thrashers are typically entirely silent if they suspect that they have been seen by a human or another threatening form.    

Unlike Canyon Towhees, Abert Towhees rarely sing from exposed positions atop a bush or artificial structure. Instead, the song is more typically uttered from within the foliage of a tangled thicket or short tree, where the singer can be surprisingly—and no doubt intentionally—difficult to see.

Voice: Abert and California Towhees are more conspicuously vocal than the Canyon Towhee. The most frequently heard call of the Abert Towhee is a sharp, metallic, high-pitched chirp, with an explosive attack and very little decay; very similar to the corresponding note given by the California Towhee, this call is unlike the lower, slower, squeakier chip of the Canyon Towhee, and may recall the chirp of a rock squirrel or the loud teep produced by the tail feathers of a displaying Anna Hummingbird. Like the other brown towhees, the Abert also has a long, slightly trilling seee call, given by birds perched deep in cover.  

The frequently heard “reunion duet” of this species is loud and harsh. It begins with three or four hesitant chirp calls, which are followed by a slow rattling chatter, subtly decelerating and clearly descending in pitch: teep teep teep rha-rho-rhi. This vocalization tends to be slower, more raucous, and more “tropical sounding” than the duets of the Canyon Towhee.

Male Abert Towhees sing rather infrequently. The close and durable, often years-long bond between the members of a pair makes “advertising” necessary only for unmated birds; most songs are presumably given to defend the pair’s territory against intruders. The usual song is a series of rapidly accelerating chips, very similar in tone and pitch to the usual chirping call; the last notes can be very short, nearly running together into a tremolo, and in some individuals rapidly fading in volume. In one common variant, the faster notes are separated from the introduction by a pause, and drop noticeably in pitch.

Detailed description and measurements drawn from standard reference works

Adult: Tail feathers dark brownish slate. Upper tail coverts, rump, back, scapulars, and nape medium brown with pinkish or yellowish tinge. Primaries, secondaries, and tertials brownish slate with slightly paler edges. Under tail coverts and vent deep tawny reddish, fading into dark buffy on lower belly. Upper belly and flanks pinkish brown, slightly paler on breast. Crown, nape, and ear coverts medium brown. Throat densely flecked with blackish; chin extensively blackish. Lores blackish. 

Tarsi and toes pale brownish pink. Bill pale pinkish gray. 

Juvenile: Paler. Upperparts colder brown-gray, without pinkish or yellowish tinge. Sides of breast blurrily streaked gray or brown. Lores blackish, throat and chin with restricted blackish flecking. 

Tarsi and toes pale brownish pink. Bill pale pinkish gray. 

Length 211-222 mm (8.3-8.7 inches)

Wing chord 88-94 mm (3.5-3.7 inches)

Tail 106-113 mm (4.2-4.4 inches)

W:T 0.83

Mass 39-56 g