Monday, March 24, 2014

California Towhee: 100 years in obscurity

California Towhee
California Towhee. San Ysidro, California. March 2, 2014. Greg Gillson.
In 1827 a scientist in England named William Swainson described to science a new species of towhee from near Mexico City collected by William Bullock. It was nearly all brown so it became known as the Brown Towhee. A slightly different-looking bird from Monterrey, California, collected by a Captain Beechy of His Majesty's Ship Blossom was described in 1839 by London scientist Nicholas Vigors and called a new species, the California Towhee. Never ones to leave well-enough alone, scientists lumped all the forms back into Brown Towhees in 1886. That arrangement lasted for over 100 years. In 1989, based upon DNA evidence, Brown Towhee was split once again into California Towhee and Canyon Towhee.

Even though it was split 25 years ago I still catch myself calling this bird Brown Towhee, from time to time.

California Towhee is a common backyard bird and abundant in chaparral habitats throughout California, Baja, and extreme SW Oregon. Canyon Towhee is paler and is found from Colorado, Arizona, and to Texas, south to central Mexico. Canyon Towhee is a species I have yet to see.