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Help develop a Bird ID tool!

Canyon Towhee

Melozone fusca ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: EMBERIZIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Canyon Towhees keep a low profile across their range in the Desert Southwest. These big, warm-brown sparrows are common on the ground and underneath shrubs in a variety of scrubby habitats, but they easily blend into the background. Look for a fairly long-legged, long-tailed sparrow that’s the same color as the dirt, with warm rusty brown under the tail. They look very similar to the widespread California Towhee (the two were once considered the same species), but their ranges don’t overlap.

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Keys to identification Help

Sparrowlike
Sparrowlike
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Canyon Towhees are large sparrows with fairly long tails, chunky bodies and short rounded wings. The bill is short and thick at the base, and the legs are long.

  • Color Pattern

    Overall, the Canyon Towhee is about as plain brown as birds come. They have warm rusty undertail coverts, a buffy throat and a hint of a reddish crown.

  • Behavior

    Watch for Canyon Towhees scurrying along the ground from one bush to another. They scratch and peck for seeds and insects on the ground, sometimes out in the open. Males perch atop short shrubs and cacti to sing in the breeding season.

  • Habitat

    Within their fairly narrow range, look for Canyon Towhees in desert grasslands with scattered dense shrubs, rocky terrain, dry watercourses with mesquite, and other dry, scrubby areas. Unlike California Towhees, they shy away from suburban neighborhoods, favoring sparsely settled and remote areas.

Range Map Help

Canyon Towhee Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult

    Canyon Towhee

    Adult
    • Stocky with pointed, conical bill
    • Rusty crown and buffy throat with noticeable pale eye-ring
    • Rusty under-tail
    • Plain gray-brown overall
    • © Larry Meade, Mammoth, Arizona, July 2006
  • Adult

    Canyon Towhee

    Adult
    • Stocky and long-tailed with conical bill
    • Rusty cap
    • Bright buffy under-tail
    • Drab gray-brown overall
    • © Brian L. Sullivan, Big Thicket, Arizona, August 2010
  • Adult pair

    Canyon Towhee

    Adult pair
    • Stocky and mostly drab with pointed, conical bill
    • Rusty cap, and bright buffy under-tail
    • Paler buffy throat contrasts with drabber gray-brown on chest and face
    • Pale eye-ring
    • © Andy Johnson, Rodeo, New Mexico, July 2008
  • Adult pair

    Canyon Towhee

    Adult pair
    • Stocky and drab with conical bill
    • Rusty crown and buffy throat contrast with mostly drab gray body
    • Bright buffy under-tail
    • Pale eye-ring
    • © Joan Gellatly, Portal, Arizona, March 2009
  • Adult

    Canyon Towhee

    Adult
    • Stocky and slightly crested
    • Cinnamon patch on crown
    • Buffy under tail
    • Mostly plain gray-brown
    • © Greg Page, Big Bend NP, Texas, September 2010

Similar Species

Abert’s Towhees overlap with Canyon Towhees in Arizona, so look for Abert’s Towhee’s black patch around the base of the bill, and its slightly larger size. Abert’s Towhee also has a pale bill and dark eyes instead of the Canyon Towhee’s grayish bill and light brown eyes. California Towhees look very similar to Canyon Towhees, but their ranges do not overlap, so checking where you are is the most straightforward way to tell them apart. Rufous-crowned Sparrows overlap with Canyon Towhees, but they are considerably smaller and more strongly marked than Canyon Towhees—grayer on the face and breast, with streaked backs.

Backyard Tips

Canyon Towhees like to feed on the ground and may also come to platform feeders. They are among the few birds that readily take milo (sorghum); they also eat millet and black-oil sunflower seeds. Landscaping your yard with low-growing, native shrubs and grasses will provide cover and possible nest sites for Canyon Towhees.

Find This Bird

Within their range, look for Canyon Towhees low in foliage or on the ground in arid, brushy environments as well as in yards. A rustling in the leaf litter may alert you to the presence of Canyon Towhees foraging with their double-scratch technique, or you may hear them calling from elevated perches on trees, fences, or roofs.