Skip to main content

Canyon Towhee Life History


ScrubIn 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. Back to top


SeedsCanyon 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. Back to top


Nest Placement

ShrubNests 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.

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.

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.
Back to top


Ground ForagerCanyon 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. Back to top


Low ConcernOverall, 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.Back to top


Johnson, R. Roy and Lois T. Haight. (1996). Canyon Towhee (Melozone fusca), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. (2020). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.

Marshall, J. T. and R. R. Johnson. (1968). "Pipilo fuscus mesoleucus, Canyon Brown Towhee." In Life histories of North American cardinals, grosbeaks, buntings, towhees, finches, sparrows, and allies., edited by Jr O. L. Austin, 622-630. U.S. Natl. Mus. Bull. 237, Part 2.

Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2017). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2015. Version 2.07.2017. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

Back to top

Learn more at Birds of the World