Original description: Fringilla chlorura Audubon 1839O
Taxonomic history at Avibase
Taxonomic history in AOU/AOS Check-list
AOU 1 (1886): Green-tailed Towhee, Pipilo chlorurus
AOU 2 (1895): Green-tailed Towhee, Pipilo chlorurus
AOU 3 (1910): Green-tailed Towhee, Oreoszpia chlorura
AOU 4 (1931): Green-tailed Towhee, Oberholseria chlorura
AOU 5 (1957): Green-tailed Towhee, Chlorura chlorura
AOU 6 (1983): Green-tailed Towhee, Pipilo chlorurus
AOU 7 (1998): Green-tailed Towhee, Pipilo chlorurus
IUCN Conservation Status: Of least concern
A characteristic breeding bird of shrubby habitats in the Great Basin, the Green-tailed Towhee’s abundance in that region is threatened by agricultural development and extractive industry. The species is included in the list of those whose status is formally monitored in Washington.
The effects of timber harvesting and fire on the breeding habitat of Green-tailed Towhees are variable. Logging dense forests “may increase available habitat for breeding towhees by reducing overstory and increasing shrub layer” needed for nesting, but if logging is accompanied by the suppression of natural fire regimes, that habitat may be only ephemeral. At the same time, fires can themselves reduce the amount of brushy habitat available for some years.
Behavior: This secretive sparrow spends most of its time, especially in winter, on the ground beneath dense vegetation, where it kicks and scratches quietly in search of seeds and invertebrates. Green-tailed Towhees are most often detected by their calls; both the mewling call and the thin dzeee are given by feeding birds, revealing their presence in deep cover.
Males deliver their songs from a perch in bushes or trees, up to twenty-five feet above the ground. These song perches may be exposed, but are often partly concealed just within the foliage.
Although Green-tailed Towhees are medium-distance migrants, with a thousand miles lying between the northern edge of their breeding range and the southern edge of their winter distribution, they are rarely seen in sustained flight. Such longer flights are said to take place close to the ground, with little rise and fall and little movement of the tail. More frequently observed shorter flights often begin or end with the bird running a few steps on the ground. These flights can be extravagantly “floppy,” with considerable tail motion and pronounced changes in altitude between bursts of wing beats.
Voice: The best-known vocalization of the Green-tailed Tohwee, given at any time of year, from the ground, from a low perch, or even in flight, is a “loud and distinct mew-wée.” Traditionally compared to a cat’s mewling, this note is a clear, ascending squeal, very like some of the flight calls of the Franklin Gull. The other frequently heard call is a long, decidedly buzzy dzeee, thinner and less strongly modulated than the corresponding call of the Spotted Towhee, longer and more strongly modulated than the corresponding calls of White-crowned and White-throated Sparrows. Nesting adults also give a sharp tick alarm note and an abrupt, slightly popping poitt.
The song, given by males beginning in spring migration, is extremely variable, with some local populations exhibiting more than fifty distinguishable song types. The song is commonly three-parted, beginning with a variable introduction of two to four sweet sliding notes; this is usually followed by a slower, variably buzzy or trilling note. The song typically ends with a faster, rasping buzz, often recalling the end of a Spotted Towhee’s song. Some songs or singers omit the central portion, and a few may replace the warbled introduction with a buzzing trill.
Detailed description and measurements drawn from standard reference works
Adult: Tail feathers yellowish green. Upper tail coverts, rump, back, scapulars, and nape olive-gray to dull olive-green. Primaries and secondaries yellowish olive, the inner webs much grayer. Greater coverts and tertials dull olive-gray. Median and lesser coverts olive-green with dark shafts.
Under tail coverts and vent pale buffy to creamy yellowish. Belly white. Flanks and sides of lower breast buffy gray. Breast and sides of upper breast gray, palest on upper breast. Throat clean white, sharply set off from pale gray upper breast and separated from white jaw stripe by fine dusky lateral throat stripe. Crown rusty brown to cinnamon, forehead grayish. Ear coverts gray, blending in to gray sides of neck and sides of upper breast. Lore dark gray, oblong white spot on lore beginning at front of eye.
Bill blackish, grayer below. Tarsi and toes brownish to pinkish.
Juvenile: Tail feathers dull yellowish green. Upper tail coverts, rump, back, scapulars, nape, and crown light olive-brown with fine dusky streaking throughout. Primaries and secondaries yellowish olive, the inner webs much grayer. Tertials dull olive-gray. Greater and median coverts with blurry brown or buffy tips. Lesser coverts olive-green with dark shafts.
Under tail coverts and vent pale buffy or whititsh. Belly whitish with sparse dusky streaking. Flanks and sides of lower breast dull whitish with fine blackish streaks. Breast and sides of upper breast pale gray or whitish with dense, fine streaking. Throat dull white and mostly unstreaked, separated from streaked whitish jaw stripe by fine dusky lateral throat stripe. Ear coverts brownish gray. Fine whitish eye ring. Lore dusky gray, poorly defined oblong whitish or buffy spot on lore beginning at front of eye.
Bill dull pinkish, darkest on culmen and tomia Tarsi and toes dull pinkish.
Length 166-179 mm (6.5-7.0 inches)
Wing chord 71-83 mm (2.8-3.3 inches)
Tail 74-87 mm (2.9-3.4 inches)
Mass 27-31 g