Status and Occurrence of Green-tailed Towhee (Pipilo chlorurus) in British Columbia
By Rick Toochin and Don Cecile
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Introduction and Distribution
The Green-tailed Towhee (Pipilo chlorurus) is a species of passerine that is found breeding in the Western United States from the Blue Mountains of southeastern Washington; south throughout eastern and parts of central Oregon, to southwestern Idaho; east through to southwestern and south-central Montana; south throughout most of Wyoming, all of Nevada, Utah, western Colorado with birds found in the eastern part of the State, northern Texas; west through northern New Mexico, northern Arizona; west and north into California along the Sierra Nevada Mountains and across northern California, and in southern California in the Mount Pinos area south through to San Diego County (Small 1994, Dunn and Alderfer 2011, Dobbs et al. 2012). There is also a breeding population in Sierra San Pedro Mártir in the northern part of the Baja Peninsula (Howell and Webb 2010). There are also nest records for western Oklahoma (Downs 1983).
The Green-tailed Towhee prefers to breed at middle to high elevation, generally between 1,400 and 3,200 m (Phillips et al. 1964, Hayward et al. 1976), but as low as 750 m in California (Small 1994) and as high as 3,600–3,700 m in New Mexico and in eastern California (Dobbs et al. 2012).
The Green-tailed Towhee is found in the southwestern United States in the winter, but mainly south of their breeding range at lower elevations (Dobbs et al. 2012). Throughout the winter range, the Green-tailed Towhee can be local and hard to find in some regions while being easier to find in other regions (Dobbs et al. 2012). This species is found from Western Texas, across southern New Mexico, southern Arizona and the southern most regions of California (Dobbs et al. 2012). Small numbers do winter in parts of the breeding range, but these numbers vary and it isn’t every year (Dobbs et al. 2012). Most populations of Green-tailed Towhee that winter in the United States are found in regions where the minimum temperatures rarely drop below –7°C (Root 1988, Dobbs et al. 2012). The winter range of the Green-tailed Towhee also extends well south into Mexico where they are found throughout the Baja Peninsula, except for the extreme northwest corner (Howell and Webb 2010). In the rest of Mexico, the Green-tailed Towhee is found along the Pacific slope, in parts of the interior of the country south to Jalisco, as well as in Michoacán, Federal District, Puebla; and less commonly, Oaxaca, and on Atlantic slope in Tamaulipas (Howell and Webb 2010, Dobbs et al. 2012).
The Green-tailed Towhee is a casually occurring species north of its breeding range in Washington State (Wahl et al. 2005). It is classified as an accidental vagrant in northwestern Washington (Wahl et al. 2005). In British Columbia, the Green-tailed Towhee is an accidental species with just over 11 Provincial records (Campbell et al. 2001, Toochin et al. 2014). It is an accidental in the rest of Canada with records from Saskatchewan, Quebec and Nova Scotia (Godfrey 1986, Dobbs et al. 2012). It is a casual vagrant in the Eastern United States with records scattered throughout the region (Dunn and Alderfer 2011).
Occurrence and Documentation
The Green-tailed Towhee is an accidental vagrant to British Columbia with only 11 Provincial records (Campbell et al. 2001, Toochin et al. 2014, see Table 1). Birds have been found throughout the Province with 1 record from Vancouver Island, 1 record from the Sunshine Coast, 4 from the Vancouver area, and 5 from the interior region (Toochin et al. 2014, see Table 1). The pattern of vagrancy shows birds turn up most frequently in May (3 records) are likely Spring overshoots (Toochin et al. 2014, see Table 1 and 2). This time pattern perfectly coincides with birds that are arriving on their breeding grounds in Oregon and Washington State (Wahl et al. 2005). It is likely more records in the future will occur at this time of year (Campbell et al. 2001).
The most records in the Province are from July (4 records) and are likely non-breeding birds that have dispersed from the south or birds that overshot in the Spring and remained in the region during the Summer, only to become failed breeders (Toochin et al. 2014, see Table 1 and 2). This species is extremely rare in the fall in British Columbia with only 1 confirmed record (Toochin et al. 2014, see Table 1 and 2). This bird was observed at the Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Ladner from September 9-13, 2002, and coincided with a July 7, 2002, observation from the Lillooet area (Toochin et al. 2014, see Table 1). It is impossible to know if these records refer to the same bird, but certainly is a huge coincidence. Even though the Green-tailed Towhee likes to travel far south for the winter there are 2 winter records from British Columbia. The first Provincial record was found in Fauquier in the interior and stayed for a short period from December 9-13, 1974 (Toochin et al. 2014, see Table 1 and 2). The other winter record is the only confirmed record from Vancouver Island of a long staying bird in Comox from November 10, 1984- February 28, 1985 (Toochin et al. 2014, see Table 1 and 2). It is highly likely another Green-tailed Towhee could be found in the winter in the Province again in the future since they have been found in Eastern North America during the winter months and have survived the cold at bird feeders (Dobbs et al. 2012).
The Green tailed Towhee is a species that is possible anywhere in British Columbia, and should be looked for by keen observers in the future. There is suitable breeding habitat in the Fraser Canyon for this species, but to date it is unrecorded in that region (R. Toochin Pers. Obs). With climate change and birds slowly moving north of their established breeding ranges over the past few decades, it is possible that this species will not only be found again in the future, but might be found breeding.