Canyon Towhee, Melozone fusca

Original descriptionPipilo fusca Swainson 1827

eBird range map

Taxonomic history at Avibase

Taxonomic history in AOU/AOS Check-list 

AOU 1 (1886): Cañon Towhee, Pipilo fuscus mesoleucus

AOU 2 (1895): Cañon Towhee, Pipilo fuscus mesoleucus

AOU 3 (1910): Cañon Towhee, Pipilo fuscus mesoleucus

AOU 4 (1931): Cañon Towhee, Pipilo fuscus mesoleucus

AOU 5 (1957): Brown Towhee, Pipilo fuscus mesoleucus, Pipilo fuscus relictus, Pipilo fuscus mesatus, Pipilo fuscus texanus

AOU 6 (1983): Brown Towhee, Pipilo fuscus [fuscus group]

AOU 7 (1998): Canyon Towhee, Pipilo fuscus

IUCN Conservation Status: Of least concern

For the most part, the rocky slopes favored by this species are relatively safe from development pressure. Where houses and other structures have been built in Canyon Towhee habitat, the birds seem in many cases to continue feeding and breeding undisturbed.  

Behavior: Canyon Towhees are not shy, and quickly grow accustomed to human presence, even begging for crumbs in picnic areas and foraging happily beneath, on, and occasionally even in parked vehicles. Feeding birds move with a shuffling hop on the ground, indifferently beneath bushes or on open, even graveled ground; this species is less inclined to scratch through leaf litter than other towhees. Startled, they may break into a run for a few feet, then return to hopping in search of seeds and tiny insects. 

Canyon Towhees spend far more time on the ground or in low shrubs than they do in flight, usually flying only a few feet before taking a perch. The flight is weak and fluttering, on noticeably short, rounded wings; the long tail is usually held fairly steady in flight, but may be dipped or slightly flared just before landing. 

The male’s song is delivered from an exposed perch atop a tall bush, low tree, picnic shelter, or vehicle. Southern races may take higher perches to sing.

Voice: The most commonly heard vocalization is a loud, low-pitched djump, calling to mind the less abruptly explosive, higher-pitched chimp of the Song Sparrow, but with a decidedly squeaky overtone, especially at the beginning of the note. At times it is drawn out into two stuttering syllables, sd-jump. This call is often given by feeding birds, on the ground or in low vegetation, and is sometimes the first clue to the presence of the species. Individuals hiding in denser brush usually switch to a long, hissing tseee, similar to the corresponding call of the Abert and California Towhees but without the discordant buzz of the note given by the Spotted Towhee. 

Like the Abert and California Towhees, this species also has a reunion greeting, a very loud, accelerating series of squealing chips and rattles given “dozens of times” each day in affirmation of the bond joining a mated pair, typically uttered when the pair moves from feeding site to feeding site on its “forage beat.” Harsh and grating, the duet is not usually given in perfect synchrony, but with one bird’s performance set off by a split second from the other’s, thus doubling all of the notes. Each bird’s part begins with a few abrupt hissing notes, which are followed by a hoarse, rasping cackle: tee-tee-ckackacka

The song of the Canyon Towhee is a simple and cheerful series of sweet slurred whistles, often introduced by one or two djump notes. The slurred series is often broken into two phrases, one—whether the first or the second—faster than the other. The effect can be surprisingly cardinal-like, especially when it is the latter half of the song that is sung faster. Shorter songs without a change in tempo can closely recall the song of a Pyrrhuloxia. A single individual male is capable of songs of both types.

Detailed description and measurements drawn from standard reference works

Adult Melozone fusca potosina: Tail feathers dusky brown. Upper tail coverts and rump slightly paler, sometimes with faint pale feather tips. Rump, back, and nape grayish brown, slightly paler than flight feathers of wing and, especially, tail. Primaries, secondaries, and tertials dusky brown. Greater and median coverts dusky brown, sometimes with faint pale tips. Undertail coverts and vent dull pale buffy. Flanks and sides of breast pale grayish brown. Belly and breast whitish, breast fading to dull buffy towards throat. Throat pale buff, separated from breast by irregular necklace of short dusky streaks and from dusky-flecked buffy jaw stripe by thin, incomplete blackish lateral throat stripe. Crown with variable rusty tinge. Ear coverts grayish brown, vaguely bordered beneath by buffy extension of jaw stripe. Lore pale buffy or whitish. Narrow but conspicuous eye ring whitish below and behind eye, faintly buffier above and in front of eye. Bill dull gray above, pale brownish or yellowish pink below. Tarsus and toes brown, the tarsus with a pink blush.  

Juvenile Melozone fusca potosina: Underparts more extensively spotted and streaked than in adult. Upper tail coverts and greater and median coverts with distinct yellowish tips. 

Length 193-198 mm (7.6-7.8 inches)

Wing chord 89-95 mm (3.5-3.7 inches)

Tail 93-95 mm (3.7 inches)

W:T 1.0