By John Keeling
The canyon towhee is a largish sparrow that is a fairly common resident around Lake Chapala, but it is not often recognized because it is so plain-Jane. You will see this bird most often on your lawn first thing in the morning looking for seeds and insects in the grass, or sitting on a rock or a wall. It is considered an unusually versatile and adaptable bird, because it is just as happy living around human habitations as it is living on isolated, dry, rocky, scrub-covered hills, or in higher-elevation pine and oak forests. Its geographic range is from Arizona and New Mexico down to the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, and it does not migrate.
It is about eight inches long, appearing like a large, nondescript sparrow with a long tail. Seen from the back it is a uniform gray-brown; seen from the front it has a streaked, buff throat and a black spot on the front of the breast. Seen from underneath the breast is pale brown and you may be able to observe that the vent under the tail is yellow or rust colored.
Its basic call is a plaintive ‘cheep, cheep’, but it can get more excited, particularly in breeding season. These birds mate for life, and mark out a territory which they will tend to protect against other birds of the same species, though you may encounter small groups of them outside of breeding season. The nest is a cup of grass and stems lined with leaves and hair, located at low to medium height in a bush or young tree. Usually three eggs are laid, which are incubated by the female only for 11 days before hatching.
On your lawn you will see that it hops rather than walks. It is one of several birds that skulks out of sight, remaining hidden in the undergrowth, but all the while you can hear them scratching the dry leaves on the ground.
John Keeling and his wife lead ‘Los Audubonistas del Lago’ which is a loose-knit group of people interested in birds. To receive notices of bird walks, please leave your e-mail address at www.avesajijic.com.