Photograph by Tom Vezo, Minden Pictures/Nat Geo Image Collection
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A canyon towhee stands beside a drinking pool in the Santa Rita Mountains in Arizona.

Photograph by Tom Vezo, Minden Pictures/Nat Geo Image Collection

Canyon Towhee

About the Canyon Towhee

As its name implies, this species is common on shallow, rocky canyon slopes and rimrock in the Southwest. It is similar to the California, and the 2 were formerly considered the same species—the brown towhee. Length 8".


Plumage is pale gray-brown, fading to whitish on belly, with cinnamon-buff undertail coverts. Rufous-brown cap, buffy eye ring, buffy throat framed by necklace of black streaks typically forming black spot at base of throat. Juvenile: lacks rufous crown, has narrow buff wingbars, and is faintly streaked below.

Geographic Variation

Three United States subspecies show weak and clinal variation in measurements, overall coloration, and prominence of the rufous cap. Two small, dark subspecies inhabit central and southwestern Texas (texanus) and the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and western Texas (mesoleucus); the more westerly subspecies has a much stronger rufous cap. Northern mesatus is large and pale, with a brown cap that is tinged rufous.

Similar Species

The California towhee has never been known to overlap in range, even as a vagrant. Compared to the California, the canyon is paler, grayish rather than brown; it has a shorter tail and more contrast in the reddish crown, giving a capped appearance. The crown is sometimes raised as a short crest. The canyon has a larger whitish belly patch with a diffuse dark spot at its junction with breast, a paler throat bordered by finer streaks, lores the same color as cheek, and a distinct buffy eye ring. Songs and calls are also very distinctive. See the Abert’s Towhee.


Call: shrill chee-yep or chedup. Song: more musical, less metallic, than the California’s; opens with a call note, followed by sweet slurred notes. Also gives duet of lisping and squealing notes, like the California.

Status and Distribution

Common. Resident; no regular movements. Year-round: arid, hilly country; desert canyons. Vagrant: casual even a short distance out of range to southeastern Utah and southwestern Kansas.



—From the National Geographic book Complete Birds of North America, 2006