The California Towhee is a LBB (Little Brown Bird) with a very distinctive high-pitched ‘cheep’ but may go unnoticed in your yard unless you’re looking for them. They’re ground birds meaning they nest close to the ground in dense bushes and are more adept at running than flying great distances. When they fledge, they can’t fly yet, but can usually scuttle away quickly. They mature slowly and spend 6-8 weeks with their parents versus other songbirds that spend even less time before leaving their parents. They need to learn to fly, run faster, feed themselves versus hiding in the bushes and waiting on mom or dad, and the classic towhee 2-step. This ‘dance move’ allows them to scratch up dirt and leaves to look for those tasty grubs underneath.
In terms of a rehab hospital, towhees are notoriously difficult. The first issue is that 70% of just the towhees we receive are caught by outdoor cats, especially those just trying to learn how to fledge. Since they can only run and not quite fly, they are easy targets and why we urge cat owners to keep cats indoors. Our own volunteers have converted home space of a little yard space into catios, but I digress. The second issue is that they never want to easily eat for humans. We quite literally have to do a song and dance in order to get them to gape like other baby birds. And one of the other contributing factors—stress. They stress easily like a college kid in finals week, only they’re like that all the time.
We recreate their natural environment with fresh greenery, appropriate space, towhee-specific dishes to promote their scratching behavior, and even specially colored living space to represent the dense brush they came from.
We raise them in groups and when we finally confirm that they are self-feeding, they ALL go into an aviary space versus through our typical soft-release program. They need an additional 2-3 weeks in aviary space to really get those flight muscles beefed up, learn where and how to hide, and (of course) get their 2-step down pat. We gradually take away the human dishes and then start hiding food items so they really have to work for it. At nearly 200 towhees per year, those aviaries come in handy for this crucial step of their development.
When they’re finally deemed ready by us human fosters, they go to a volunteer’s safe haven to be watched over for another 2 weeks or so until they disperse. In most cases they don’t disperse very far and previous released group know when a new batch may be coming into the yard because—free worms! Though challenging, seeing the released ones explore their new environment is always entertaining and rewarding. Our first batch of towhees of the season just went out to a volunteer yard and the next batch is learning in the aviary.
This is why aviary space is so important. Don’t wait, please donate.