Canyon Wren Catherpes mexicanus Scientific name definitions

Stephanie L. Jones, Joseph Scott Dieni, Nathanial B. Warning, David Leatherman, Lorraine Dargis, and Lauryn Benedict
Version: 2.0 — Published January 6, 2023



The Canyon Wren hops on rocks while foraging, examining crevices for spiders and insects, occasionally uttering single-call notes. It also flies across canyons and from rock to rock. Moves rapidly on and under rocks and into crevices. Often spreads its legs while probing so that its breast and center of gravity are low to the ground (2). Extends neck forward with bill parallel to the ground and as close to the ground as possible. Clings to and climbs sloping or vertical rocks and hops forward in small jumps. When inside a cave or under a rock overhang, it frequently flies up and grasps the ceiling with both feet either to capture prey with quick bill thrusts or to vocalize (2).

This species is quite nimble, and able to quickly climb upward as well as downward on rocky surfaces. This is enabled by relatively short tarsi which lower its center of gravity, and by large feet with long hallux and claws. All claws are strongly decurved with sharp tips. In climbing a large boulder, a Canyon Wren usually does not progress directly vertically but obliquely. Feet are kept wide apart while the bird advances with the upper foot and braces itself with the lower foot (2).

Canyon Wren movements can resemble those of the Rock Wren (Salpinctes obsoletus), particularly in their quick locomotion along cliff surfaces and manner of bowing and swinging from side to side in the presence of an intruder (83).


Information needed.

Agonistic Behavior

Physical and Communicative Interactions

Information needed.

Territorial Behavior

The Canyon Wren is reported to reside on territory year round (2, 3). At Red Rocks Mountain Park in the Front Range of Colorado, breeding territories were 1.3 ha ± 0.6 SD (range 0.4–2.8, n = 28), and winter territories were 1.0 ha ± 0.4 SD (range 0.2–1.9) (3). Territories are evenly spaced approximately 0.6 km apart throughout suitable habitat. In a canyon along the South Platte River, 11 breeding territories were found in 3.2 km (SLJ, JSD). At Red Rocks Mountain Park, territory density was 4.5 per 100 ha (3). In northern Colorado, mean nearest-neighbor distance between breeding territory centers was 986 m ± 638 SD (range 360–2,152, n = 6) (69).

Individuals may range widely during the day. In northern Colorado, the average 95% fixed-kernel home ranges of pairs was 5.6 ha ± 2.0 SD (range 2.5–9.1, n = 13), with 50% fixed-kernel core areas 0.65 ha ± 0.41 SD (range 0.26–1.6, n = 13; 69). Adjacent home ranges did not overlap (n = 6; 69).

Playback experiments indicate that males and females defend territories against same-sex conspecifics by approaching and singing (79). In response to conspecific playback, territory-holders sing at a rapid pace that may remain elevated over baseline singing levels for 20 minutes or more (77, 79). Males adjust song form during encounters with simulated intruders to lower pitched song and add more harsh, aggressive notes (77).

Territories often overlap those of the Rock Wren, a species that inhabits piles of broken rocks, scattered boulders with little vegetation, and dry, rocky open slopes (22, 1, 69). Individuals of both sexes actively attempt to repulse Rock Wren from breeding territories, flying toward an intruder, singing, and following it (1, 2; see also Social and Interspecific Behavior).

Sexual Behavior

Mating System

Apparently monogamous (84, 82).

Pair Bond

Pairs remain together throughout the year; known to form pair bonds that may endure more than one breeding season (1, 2, SLJ). Pairs often forage together and occasionally sing spontaneously during the winter months (1, SLJ, JSD), suggesting that pair bonds may exist to some degree throughout the year.

Extra-Pair Copulation

Not observed. Parentage has not been verified genetically.

Social and Interspecific Behavior

Degree of Sociality

Not a flocking species. Pairs maintain intraspecific territories during the breeding and winter period (SLJ).

Nonpredatory Interspecific Interactions

Individuals of both sexes actively attempt to repulse Rock Wren from breeding territories (1, 2). The Canyon Wren responds to broadcast of Rock Wren songs by singing loudly and repeatedly. The Rock Wren, however, does nest successfully within Canyon Wren breeding territories (SLJ). Each species has specialized foraging and nesting habitats (22) with some overlap. In northern Colorado, 68% of Canyon Wren home ranges overlapped with those of the Rock Wren by a mean volume of intersection index (VI) of 28%, while 17% of core-use (50% fixed-kernel) areas overlapped those of the Rock Wren by a mean VI of 18% (69). Mean interspecific nearest-neighbor distance between adjacent or overlapping Canyon Wren and Rock Wren territory centers was 195 m ± 148 SD (range 61–570, n = 11). The Canyon Wren differed significantly from the Rock Wren in foraging microhabitat locations, suggesting resource partitioning in the shared habitat (69).

In northern Colorado, the Canyon Wren is closely associated with the Cliff Swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota). One study found that every located Canyon Wren territory on public lands in Larimer County, Colorado, overlapped with a Cliff Swallow nest colony (5). Also, the White-throated Swift (Aeronautes saxatalis) nests in colonies in rocks used by nesting Canyon Wrens. Nesting swifts responded consistently to broadcast of Canyon Wren songs, causing them to leave the rocks and vocalize; in the Chiricahua Mountains of southeastern Arizona, a White-throated Swift was observed to dive at a singing Canyon Wren, driving the wren from its song perch (JSD, SLJ).


No record of predation on nests, juveniles, or adults. Potential predators found in suitable Canyon Wren habitat and range include snakes, corvids, hawks, falcons, and rock squirrel (Otospermophilus variegatus). When approaching its nest, typically flies back and forth several times or flies around the territory before entering the nest (SLJ), a behavior usually associated with predator avoidance.

Recommended Citation

Jones, S. L., J. S. Dieni, N. B. Warning, D. Leatherman, L. Dargis, and L. Benedict (2023). Canyon Wren (Catherpes mexicanus), version 2.0. In Birds of the World (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.canwre.02