Canyon towhee a somewhat drab but friendly bird - Albuquerque Journal

Canyon towhee a somewhat drab but friendly bird

Cathryn Cunningham/Journal

We are fortunate in New Mexico to have several species of towhee. One of my favorites is the canyon towhee.

This towhee is a large sparrow species at 9 inches in length. A somewhat drab towhee, it is brownish overall with a rusty under tail and a thick, short bill. It has a reddish crown on the top of its head, a buffy eye ring and faint streaking on the neck. The sexes are indistinguishable.

The very similar looking California towhee and the canyon towhee were once considered the same species called the brown towhee. Through DNA science it was discovered that they are two distinct species.

The canyon towhee can be found throughout the southwest including New Mexico. Their preferred habitat is desert grassland, natural arroyos, along stream beds and in scrubby suburban yards. In Albuquerque, this towhee is most commonly seen in the Sandia foothills and on the west mesa.

What this towhee lacks in color, it more than makes up for in friendliness. It is not uncommon to have a canyon towhee hop inside your house if your door is left open.

Like other towhees, the canyon towhee prefers to feed on the ground. Its foods include seeds from grasses, insects, snails, spiders and fruits. Apples are a favorite of this towhee.

After hiking in the Sandia foothills in Albuquerque, a very friendly canyon towhee scooted up to me while I was snacking on an apple. I decided to share my apple with the inquisitive towhee. Canyon towhees will commonly eat millet or black-oil sunflower seed that spill on the ground below bird feeders. Towhees scratch in leaf litter to unearth hidden insects by scooting forward and then quickly scratching backwards. This is called the “double scratch method.” It is beneficial for the towhee to leave some leaf litter in your yard.

Towhees usually only fly short distances and are more often seen running than flying. These distinctive behaviors are the best way to identify a towhee.

Unlike most birds, the canyon towhee will sometimes nest two times per year. The timing often coincides with the winter and summer rains that produce more natural foods such as plant material and insects to feed to their young. The canyon towhee is monogamous and form strong pair bonds.

Next time you are out on the trails in New Mexico be sure to pack an apple and be ready to share.

Mary Schmauss is the owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Albuquerque. A lifelong birder and author of “For the Birds: A Month-by-Month Guide to Attracting Birds to your Backyard.”

 

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