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

Sounds and Vocal Behavior


The beautiful, melodious song of the male Canyon Wren echoing off sheer rocky cliffs is among the quintessential birding experiences of western North America. The species also has distinctive female song, which although unknown to many observers, is one of the better studied examples of female song among species within its range.



More study needed. Young birds appear to produce subsong in their hatch year. One sang male-type subsong in July in Colorado (LB).

Vocal Array

Both sexes sing, but female song is rarer.

Male Song. Consists of a long series of clear, whistled, descending notes, sometimes followed by a variable number of harsh rasps (Figure 3). It can also be described as starting with a series of staccato notes followed by long-drawn double notes: tsee-i, tsee-i, slower and descending in pitch, ending with a still lower too-ee, too-ee, too-ee (75). Male song can be intense and persistently repeated, particularly during the breeding period. Males appear to change singing behavior prior to breeding season, calling exclusively through the winter and beginning to sing more at the start of the breeding season (March–August) (76). When challenged with conspecific playback, males approach male songs and adjust their own vocalizations to include lower frequencies and more aggressive notes (77).

Female Song. Is a rising and then falling series of burring/buzzing notes (1, 4, Figure 3). Song probably functions to establish and reinforce pair bond, and for territorial defense. Though spontaneous female song is rare, females sing readily in response to playback of female song (78, 79, 80). Paired males also respond to female song with a series of short, rapid calls, appearing to alert the paired female, as males will stop calling when females arrive (LED). Females and males tend to stay close together (> 1 m) during female playback, potentially defending against a female intruder together and strengthening the pair bond (LED).

Courtship Vocalizations

Three different courtship vocalizations have been documented:

(1) Male gives a complete song, often without terminal buzzes; female responds with a series of descending buzzes, starting in middle of the male song. This pattern has been termed a duet, but one study showed that it likely results from random male-female song overlap (79).

(2) Male and female continuously give a series of overlapping buzzes, resembling tsee tsee tsee. This series begins descending, but levels out after 2–3 notes.

(3) Male gives typical song, with terminal buzzes; then female responds with many loud buzzes resembling alarm calls.

Veet. The primary call of Canyon Wren is a loud, metallic buzz, repeated at varying intervals; described as “a loud, harsh, penetrating cry, similar to the ordinary cry of nighthawks”, resembling tsee tsee (22), given throughout the year in many situations . The Veet call is sometimes categorized as the Location Call, which is given either singly or continuously while foraging, between pairs or between adults and fledglings. Fledglings give a variation of this call continuously while foraging, particularly during the period of adult care after fledgling. Nestlings call from the nest immediately before fledgling.

Alarm Call. Relatively similar to the Veet call but typically given in high alarm, as when the bird is disturbed in territories and near the nest. Most variations begin with an abbreviated Veet note and accelerated into a rapid chitter of up to 9-10 additional notes. It is heard throughout the year. In the winter, the Alarm Call is often heard in response to playback recordings of song.

Begging Call. A high-pitched call given by nestlings when begging food from adults.

Geographic Variation

Locally, neighbors tend to share song types (4). Multiple male song types span wide geographic distances, from Northern California to Mexico (4). Females may have geographical variation in their song, as females in Arizona have been observed to sing songs of significantly lower pitch than Colorado females (80).


Sings throughout the year, sparingly in winter (76). Territorial song activity increases beginning in February and continues through November in Texas (22); in Colorado, song activity increases in March and continues through September (76). Rarely sings in winter, but will respond to playback recordings. Females have been observed to sing in late summer while offspring were in fledgling stage (July–August) (LED).

Daily Pattern of Vocalizing

During the breeding season, males sing throughout the day, with most activity in the morning and before dusk. Females sing sporadically throughout the day. Female song is rare, and females usually respond to males with the Location Call.

Sex Differences

Major differences include the following: male and female songs sound different; male song type repertoires are larger than female song type repertoires; males broadcast song throughout the day during the breeding season, while females sing only occasionally.

Both sexes use song in contests with conspecifics (80, 79). As described, male and female songs differ substantially in form. Sound propagation experiments indicate that the whistled portions of male songs are adapted for long-distance transmission, while female songs transmit over very limited distances and seem to be adaptive during close encounters with competitors (81).

Repertoire and Delivery of Songs

Song Repertoire

Females sing only 1 song type, whereas males have song type repertoires of approximately 5 types. A study in Northern Colorado found that 18 males in one population each sang 5 song types, with 4 song types being shared by all individuals; one male sang 6 song types (4).

Syllable Repertoire

Most male songs include a series of the same note type that morphs slightly in form and descends in pitch through the song delivery. Males sometimes add harsh sounding notes to the end of the descending cascade of whistled notes (4). Some male songs include multiple distinct whistled note types, each repeated several times before the song ends. In a study of song among nine species of North American wrens (82), Canyon Wren male song had a relatively low level of within-song note complexity, with 2–3 note types incorporated into an average song. One study found an average male song length of 4.6 s (82).

Song Delivery

Males sing long song bouts naturally, in response to conspecifics, and in response to song playback. In Colorado, a male stimulated once by a playback recording of its song responded by continuously singing around an active nest site for approximately 15 min. The song bursts were an average of 16.7 s apart (5–40 s), each including 1–4 complete songs, but typically 2 songs (SLJ). Males sing with eventual variety, repeating a single song type multiple times before switching types. Females also sing multiple songs consecutively when responding to playback (LED); males and females often overlap songs when both are singing in response to playback .

Places of Vocalizing

Uses numerous and consistent perches, both high on the top of cliffs and in the middle or bottom of rock faces and crevices, but rarely observed using vegetative perches (SLJ, JSD).

Nonvocal Sounds

None reported.

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