These Towhees are difficult to photograph, and it is funny that the best photo I got was when it landed on the curbing. Oh well, I’ll take it! [Grins].
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.
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 the 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.