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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.

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Male
Length
8.3–9.8 in
21–25 cm
Wingspan
11.5 in
29.21 cm
Weight
1.3–1.9 oz
37–53 g
Female
Length
8.3–9.8 in
21–25 cm
Wingspan
11.5 in
29.21 cm
Weight
1.3–1.9 oz
37–53 g

Cool Facts

  • Canyon Towhees are desert creatures and they pay attention to water supplies. They can nest twice a year, timing their attempts to coincide with winter and summer rains, which produce a flush of plant material and insects.
  • Canyon Towhees’ seemingly simple songs contain lots of variation and have been well studied. In 1968, two scientists described this variation colorfully: “At its worst the song is a dull series of chips, but at its best it is a gay, sustained jingle to be compared with that of a titmouse. A male whose dawn singing has been dull and perfunctory during late winter and early spring will become transformed into a polished singer when his mate disappears to incubate….”
  • Present-day Canyon Towhee and California Towhee were once considered the same species, named the Brown Towhee. Mitochondrial DNA, which traces genetic history along the mother’s gene line, provided evidence needed to split the two species.
  • The oldest recorded Canyon Towhee was a male, and at least 7 years, 2 months old when he was recaught and rereleased during banding operations in Texas in 1998. He had been banded in the same state in 1992.

Habitat


Scrub

In the United States, Canyon Towhees live in desert grasslands and rocky and shrubby areas, often along arroyos, mesquite thickets along streams, and suburban settlements. They also occur at higher elevations, particularly in Mexico, where you may find them in desert grasslands, pinyon-juniper woods, and pine-oak forests.

Food


Seeds

Canyon Towhees eat mostly small seeds of grasses, sorrel, chickweed, pigweed, and lupine, as well as berries including elderberry and poison oak. They eat small invertebrates, too, including grasshoppers and other insects, millipedes, snails, and spiders. At feeders them eat milo (sorghum), millet, black oil sunflower seeds, and rolled oats.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–6 eggs
Number of Broods
1-3 broods
Egg Length
0.8–1.1 in
2.1–2.7 cm
Egg Width
0.6–0.8 in
1.5–2 cm
Egg Description
Bluish white to pearl gray, spotted with brown, black, or purple.
Nest Description

The female builds a bulky nest of grass and plant stems lined with fine grasses, horse-hair, or even pieces of old rags. The nests often incorporate flowers including mustards and daisies. The finished nest is about 4 inches across, and the cup is 2.5 inches across and 3 inches deep.

Nest Placement

Shrub

Nests in trees, shrubs, or vines where it places its nest against the main trunk, supported by strong branches and well shaded and hidden; frequently at a height of 3-12 feet. Common nest plants include juniper, pinyon pine, sagebrush, cholla cactus, yuccas, and elderberry. They can nest surprisingly early and late in the year, a result of timing their nesting attempts to coincide with winter and summer rains, which produce a flush of plant material and insects.

Behavior


Ground Forager

Canyon Towhees stay fairly close to the ground and often run rather than fly. When they do fly, they fly short distances and are slow but maneuverable. Abert’s and Canyon Towhees occur in the same areas and use very similar habitats and foods—an unusual situation for closely related species. When foraging in leaf litter, Canyon Towhees use the double-scratch method shared by many towhees and sparrows. This consists of a quick jump forward and an even quicker jump back, scratching with the feet to overturn leaves and expose food items. Canyon Towhees are monogamous and form very long-lasting (often lifelong) pair bonds. They typically forage alone or as a pair, although they don’t defend territories vigorously and often tolerate other Canyon Towhees if they approach.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Overall, Canyon Towhee populations were stable, with some declines in the central portion of their range, between 1966 and 2015, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 10 million, with 41% living in the U.S., and 59% living in Mexico. The species rates a 9 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. It is a U.S.-Canada Stewardship species. Canyon Towhee is not on the 2016 State of North America's Birds' Watch List. Populations have declined as development has increased along rivers of the Southwest, although they simultaneously can adjust well to edges and fields created by agriculture and suburbs. For birds near human settlements, domestic and feral cats can be a serious threat.

Credits

Range Map Help

Canyon Towhee Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Resident throughout their range, though they may move up or downhill to warmer habitats in winter and cooler ones in summer.

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 out more about what this bird likes to eat and what feeder is best by using the Project FeederWatch Common Feeder Birds bird list.

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.

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