Wherever there is water in arid country there will be concentrations of birds; often these will include some true waterbirds, seemingly quite out of place in the desert.
Grebes are swimmers that are more graceful underwater than in the air, but a few species do migrate across the desert. One, the pied-billed grebe, may show up on any small pond. A pair of pied-billeds may remain to raise young if they find enough plant material with which to build their floating nest. Just as widespread are various members of the heron family. Our largest species, the great blue heron, is sometimes seen flapping slowly over the desert, miles from water. It hunts in typical heron fashion—standing by the water’s edge to spear or seize fish, frogs, and other aquatic creatures—but in a pinch it can also dine on rodents in dry fields.
Ducks are the most conspicuous water birds to reach the desert. Some lakes here may host hundreds of ducks in winter, representing up to a dozen species. Only a few of these will remain to nest in this region. While most ducks arrive here from the north, Whistling-Ducks come from the south. These odd, gangly birds— perhaps related more closely to geese than to true ducks—are typical of the tropics. Black-bellied whistling-ducks have increased here in recent decades, and pairs can be seen attending flotillas of downy ducklings on southern Arizona ponds.—Kenn Kaufman
Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps)
Family: Podicipedidae (Grebes)
Spanish names: buzo
This 12 to 15 inch, drab brown, stocky bird can be distinguished by its short, blunt bill that is encircled with a black band in summer. Its feet are set far back on body which makes travel on land awkward, but is ideal for underwater swimming. The Pied-billed Grebe is seldom seen flying.
Frequents ponds, lakes, and marshy areas
• Diet: Feeds on a wide variety of aquatic life including insects, spiders, tadpoles and small fish.
• Behavior: Forages by swimming underwater, propelled by its feet.
This bird lays 4 to 7 eggs in a floating nest that is built by both sexes. Incubation, which is performed by both parents, takes about 23 days. The young are fed by both parents and are able to swim shortly after hatching. Pied-billed Grebes are solitary birds; often only one mating pair is found on a pond or lake.
The Pied-billed Grebe has the odd habit of eating its own feathers, as well as feeding feathers to its young. It also has an interesting behavior when apprehensive or nervous: it expells air from its lungs and feathers, which causes it to slowly sink in the water; it then swims with only its head breaking the water surface.
Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)
Family: Ardeidae (Herons, Bitterns)
Spanish names: garza
This 42 to 52 inch bird is the largest heron in North America. It has blue-gray wings and back, whitish underparts, and a white head with a black streak. It flies with steady, slow wingbeats; its long legs hang straight back and its long neck is tucked back on its shoulders during flight.
This highly adaptable bird can be found in a variety of riparian habitats including desert rivers, ponds, and marshes.
• Diet: Mostly fish but also amphibians, reptiles, insects, rodents, and birds.
• Behavior: The Great Blue Heron most often feeds while standing still or slowly wading in shallow water; it strikes at small fish swimming by with its spear-like bill. It is not uncommon for a heron to make a 20 or even 30 mile round trip in its quest for a good foraging site.
Great Blue Herons breed in colonies. The male chooses the nest site and displays to attract a female. The nest site is typically in a tree 20 to 60 feet above the ground or water, although shrubs are also used as nest sites. The female lays 3 to 5 eggs in a platform nest made of sticks. The eggs, which are incubated by both parents, hatch in 25 to 30 days. The young are fed regurgitated matter by both parents. Young are able to fly after about two months.
Herons are sometimes mistakenly called “cranes.”Other than both having long legs and long necks, they are very different. Cranes are omnivores, often feeding on grain in dry fields, and although cranes may gather in huge flocks during migration and winter, they typically nest as isolated pairs, unlike the colonial Herons.
Representative Sonoran Desert species:
Black-bellied Whistling-Duck (Dendrocygna autumnalis)
Green-winged Teal (Anas crecca)
Cinnamon Teal (Anas cyanoptera)
Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata)
Northern Pintail (Anas acuta)
Redhead (Aythya americana)
Ruddy Duck (Oxyura jamaicensis)
Family: Anatidae (Ducks, Geese, Swans)
Spanish names: pato (duck); cerceta aliverde (Green-winged Teal); tilito café (Cinnamon Teal); pichichí (Whistling-Duck); pato cabeza roja (Redhead)
Black-bellied Whistling-Duck: Reddish brown with a black belly, white wing patches, and a pink bill. This beautifully marked, long-legged, long-necked duck is both sociable and noisy.
Green-winged Teal: Very small; metallic green speculum (a patch on the secondaries). Male: gray body; chestnut head with green eye patch; vertical white mark in front of wing. Female: mottled brown.
Cinnamon Teal: Male is deep rufous, female is a mottled brown. Both have a bluish wing patch.
Northern Shoveler: Often mistaken for a mallard but can be distinguished by its large, dark, shovel-shaped bill, short neck, and pale blue wing patch. Breeding male has green head, white breast, chestnut belly and flanks, white area just before the tail. Females, juveniles, and molting males are drab and mottled.
Northern Pintail male: slim, gray-colored body; long neck with white throat markings; brown head; long pointed tail. Female: mottled brown with a somewhat pointed tail.
Redhead male: large, round, chestnut-red head; gray body; black breast; blue bill with dark tip. Female: pale bill with dark tip, brown back and sides.
Ruddy Duck: Males are easily recognized from spring until late-summer by their chestnut- colored body, sky-blue bill, black cap, and white face. Females and winter males are gray-bodied, and females have a dark stripe bisecting the white cheek patch. The tail feathers of the Ruddy Duck are often cocked up in the air. This species takes flight only reluctantly, often skittering across the surface of the water to gain speed for takeoff.
These waterfowl frequent ponds, marshes, and lakes.
• Diet: Whistling-Duck: Mostly seeds and grains. Shoveler and Teal: Seeds and aquatic plants. Redhead: Mostly insects and aquatic plants. Pintail and Ruddy Duck: Mainly seeds and insects.
• Behavior: Flocks of Black-bellied Whistling-Duck often feed on waste grain in harvested fields, as well as seeds in grasslands and overgrown pastures; insects and other invertebrates make up a small part of their diet.
Teal forage along the edge of ponds dabbling for seeds and other plant matter that are within a neck’s-reach of the surface. The pre-cocial ducklings feed on small aquatic invertebrates and vegetation.
Northern Shoveler feeds in shallow open water where large bill and comblike “teeth” are used to strain out plant and animal matter; diet varies with season; in winter diet consists mostly of aquatic plants; seldom upends or dives.
Northern Pintail are wary birds that prefer to forage in shallow water where they upend or submerge the head and neck while swimming. Some foraging is also done on land.
Redheads forage by diving or upending, usually in shallow water. Ninety percent of their food is vegetable matter, but they will feed on snails, mollusks, and insects.
Ruddy Ducks forage by diving and swimming under water where their broad bill collects and strains food from mud.
Except for the Whistling-Ducks and Mallards, few ducks spend the summer breeding season in the Sonoran Desert region. Most nest in the “prairie pothole region” of southern Canada and north central United States, or around lakes in the forest or tundra regions of Canada and Alaska. However, more than 20 species of ducks can be found wintering regularly in the Sonoran Desert region.
Black-bellied Whistling-Duck: United States populations are increasing, probably because of nest boxes. This species was rare in Arizona before 1949 but has since become a rather common nesting bird.
Northern Pintail: Although this species is widespread and abundant, there is some indication that numbers have been declining during the last 40 years. Drought may be responsible for dramatic reductions in nesting success.
Redhead: It appears that this species has suffered more severe population declines than most other ducks. This may be due to loss of nesting habitat.
In cartoon fiction, vultures are ghastly portents of death, circling ominously overhead when explorers are lost in the desert. In reality, vultures play a much more wholesome role. By cleaning up the carcasses of dead animals, they act as the sanitation department of the natural world.
Vultures are perfectly designed for living on carrion. They may have to wait a few days in between meals, so in searching for food they burn up very little energy, soaring for hours with scarcely a flap of their broad wings. Their search is aided by keen eyesight and, in the case of the turkey vulture, a well-developed sense of smell, unusual among birds. And although their naked wrinkled heads may be unattractive to human eyes, the lack of feathers on their heads is a decided advantage when the birds are involved in the messy business of tearing open dead animals.
The vultures found in the warmer parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa are in the same family as are hawks and eagles. The vultures of the Americas come from a totally different background; they are now known to be more closely related to storks. It seems remarkable that these two completely unrelated groups of vultures should be so similar in structure and appearance. The similarities are probably adaptations to the same feeding behavior, an example of what is called convergent evolution.—Kenn Kaufman
Sonoran Desert species:
Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)
Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus)
Family: Cathartidae (New World Vultures)
Other common names: buzzard (both species)
Spanish names: zopilote, buitre (vulture); aura cabeciroja, aura común (Turkey Vulture); zopilote común (Black Vulture)
The featherless head and large dark body help to identify these 2 scavengers. In flight they can be distinguished from one another by the patterns of the underside of the wings and by the wing shape. Turkey Vulture: A large dark brown to black bird with a featherless red head; reddish feet; underside of wings appear two-toned; wingspan is up to 6 feet (1.8 m); an accomplished soarer. Black Vulture: A large shiny black bird with a dark gray, featherless head and gray feet; underside of wings have prominent white patch at the tip; tail is short and square; flies with several short wing beats and then a short glide; also soars effortlessly on hot days.
Both vultures are found in open country.
• Diet: Both are carrion eaters.
• Behavior: The Turkey Vulture hunts by soaring on thermals (rising air currents), sometimes for an hour or more with no apparent movement of the wings; food is located by smell and sight. Turkey Vultures are unusual among birds in that they have a well-developed sense of smell. The Black Vulture finds its food by sight; may watch for concentrations of Turkey Vultures and follow them to carrion.
Vultures use cliff faces, tree stumps, caves, and hidden areas on the ground for nesting; neither species builds nests. One to 3 whitish, blotched eggs are incubated by both parents; the young are fed by both parents by regurgitation. Turkey Vulture incubation period is 34 to 41 days. Young are capable of flight about 60 to 70 days after hatching. Black Vulture incubation period is 37 to 41 days. Young are capable of flight about 75 to 80 days after hatching.
When threatened, vultures emit a hissing sound in defense; the Black Vulture regurgitates when confronted.
These birds excrete on their legs as a means of cooling themselves. This is called urohydrosis.
Hawks & Eagles
Admired for their strength and hunting prowess, renowned for their keen eyesight, emblazoned on flags and national shields, the hawks and eagles are recognized worldwide. Most birds of prey that hunt by day belong to this family—more than 240 species, ranging in size from huge eagles to speedy little hawks no bigger than robins. Several kinds are familiar sights over the Sonoran Desert.
Red-tailed Hawk and Cooper’s Hawk, widespread over North America, are common in the desert year-round. The red-tail, one of the typical soaring buteo hawks (buteos are larger hawks with broad, rounded wings and short, broad tails), is far more often seen, as it perches in the open or circles overhead, watching for rodents and other prey. Cooper’s Hawk is typical of the accipiter group; it is a long-tailed, short-winged bird that seldom soars. Hunting near dense cover, relying on speed and surprise, Cooper’s hawk takes many birds as well as rodents.
Seen less often here are eagles and Ospreys. The Osprey is a hawk that plunges feet-first to catch fish; in the southwest it visits the larger bodies of water, but occasionally a migrant is seen flying over the open desert. Bald Eagles are also seen mostly close to water; a few pairs nest along wilder rivers in the Sonoran Desert. Golden Eagles, by contrast, are often in very dry country, where these huge predators take animals as large as jackrabbits.
Birds of prey are generally solitary, but there are exceptions. Harris’s Hawk, a sharply patterned raptor of warm climates, lives in small groups. Three or more adults often care for the young in a single nest, and two or three may hunt cooperatively, actively harrying prey animals out into the open. A classic desert sight involves three or four Harris’s Hawks perched on adjacent arms of the same giant saguaro.—Kenn Kaufman
Sonoran Desert species:
Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)
Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii)
Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)
Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)
Harris’s Hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus)
Subfamily: Pandioninae (Osprey)
Spanish Names: gavilan pescador (Osprey), aquila calva (Bald Eagle), esmerejon de Cooper (Cooper’s Hawk), aquilla parda (Red-tailed Hawk), águila real (Golden Eagle), aguilla cinchada (Harris’s Hawk).
Osprey: Snowy white underparts and dark brown above; head is white with a dark brown eye stripe. In flight the long, narrow wings have dark wrist patches and the white belly is obvious. Females are similar to males but usually show a band of brown streaks across the chest.
Bald Eagle: A very large brown raptor with a white head and tail; bill is yellow; a larger head and shorter tail than the Golden Eagle; young resemble the adults but are solid dark brown at first, developing the white head and tail over a period of several years.
Cooper’s Hawk: Medium-sized accipiter with a long tail rounded at the tip and short, round wings; adults are blue-gray above, and narrowly barred below with reddish-brown and white; young are more brown with streaked underparts.
Golden Eagle: A very large brown raptor with a golden head and neck; young show white patches in the wings and a white base to the black tail. Golden Eagles soar with their wings slightly raised.
Red-tailed Hawk: A very common hawk with a variety of plumages; brown above with broad, round wings. On adults the upperside of the tail is typically reddish-brown, and this color usually shows through from the underside as well. Some adults have a belly band of dark brown streaking with white underparts. Red-tailed Hawks in the Southwest usually have light underparts and lack a belly band; other color morphs may be mostly blackish, dark brown, or cinnamon-brown below. The young have gray-brown tails with black bands.
Harris’s Hawk: Dark brown with chestnut shoulder patches, leg feathering and wing linings; tail is long and black with white at the base and tip; young are lightly streaked below with brown.
Ospreys and Bald Eagles are found near coastal areas, rivers, and lakes. Ospreys are less common inland. Golden Eagles can be found in mountain habitats, open country, and desert. Cooper’s Hawks occur in desert, woodlands, deciduous forests, and riparian areas. Red-tailed Hawks are found in a variety of habitats such as desert, woodlands, plains, riparian, and open areas. Harris’s Hawks occur in mesquite and saguaro habitats, semi-arid woodlands, and scrub.
Ospreys are fish hawks. They plunge and dive with feet first into the water to catch fish. The fish is taken to a perch or nest to be eaten. There are scales with spines on the toes for grasping fish. Ospreys are the only raptors whose front talons turn backwards. Ospreys also eat frogs, turtles, rodents, and occasionally birds.
Bald Eagles prey on fish too. They will also feed on small mammals, waterfowl, seabirds, and carrion. Bald Eagles compete with Ospreys for food. Loss of habitat and the use of pesticides have affected Bald Eagles. In recent years the Arizona population has been increasing. They are still on the endangered list in our area, however.
Golden Eagles prey upon rabbits, small mammals and carrion. Pair bonds are long-term. Nests are large and bulky. The male feeds the female during incubation and chick rearing; the larger nestling usually kills the smaller. Territories are usually occupied all year.
Cooper’s Hawks, members of the accipiter group, fly with rapid, shallow wingbeats. They overtake their prey swiftly and often through dense woods or shrubs. They feed mostly on birds and some small mammals.
Red-tailed Hawks are the most common and widespread raptors in North America. They prey mostly on rodents and are often seen perched on telephone poles watching for prey. Females often return to the same nesting territory. Red-tailed Hawk populations are stable and increasing in some areas.
Harris’s Hawks are neotropical raptors that prey upon rabbits, rodents, snakes, lizards, and birds. These hawks are social and hunt in family groups. Most social groups consist of a pair and several nonbreeding helpers who assist in feeding the nestlings and defending the nest. This cooperative behavior is also used to flush and catch prey that is hiding in cover. Large family groups are observed during autumn and winter.
Caracaras & Falcons
Some of the world’s most impressive fliers belong to the falcon family. Typical falcons are trim birds of prey, with long tails and angular, pointed wings, built for breath- taking speed and maneuverability in the air.
Our most familiar falcon, the American Kestrel, is also our smallest, about the size of a Mourning Dove. Kestrels nest in large cavities in trees, or in holes in saguaro cacti. Although they can put on bursts of speed when they are pursuing rodents or small birds, most of their diet consists of large insects; their fanciest flying trick is their ability to hover in one spot, on rapidly beating wings, while they scan the ground for prey.
Prairie Falcons are much larger, but surprisingly maneuverable for their size. When pursuing small birds in the open, they can twist and turn with amazing agility. Peregrine Falcons are similar in size, but rely on different hunting techniques, usually power-diving from considerable heights to take their prey by surprise. In these dives, Peregrines are thought to approach 200 miles per hour (320 km per hour). Prairie Falcons are native to the American West, while Peregrines range almost worldwide; both occur in the Sonoran Desert in small numbers at all seasons.
Classified in the same family, but far different in structure and habits, are the Caracaras. Our Crested Caracara is a broad-winged, slow-flying scavenger, often competing with vultures at road kills and other carcasses. Mainly a tropical bird, it is most common in the southern parts of the Sonoran Desert.—Kenn Kaufman
Caracaras and Falcons
Sonoran Desert species:
Crested Caracara (Caracara plancus)
American Kestrel (Falco sparverius)
Prairie Falcon (Falco mexicanus)
Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)
Spanish names: quebrantahuesos (Crested Caracara), gavilan pollero (Kestrel), halcon café (Prairie Falcon), halcon pollero (Peregrine Falcon)
The Crested Caracara has a black-brown body, white neck and throat, red-orange face, black head and long yellow legs; it has round wings and lacks the speed of falcons; its flight is direct and noisy. In flight the white base of the tail and white patch on the tips on the wings contrast with the black body.
The American Kestrel is the smallest falcon in the United States with a wing-spread is less than 2 feet; back and tail are rust-brown; it has a black and white head pattern. Males have blue-gray wings and a more rust colored tail than females, which are brown overall, except for the lighter breast.
The Prairie Falcon is medium-sized with a pale, sandy-brown back; its underparts are white and heavily spotted; the crown is streaked and the helmet has a thin dark mustache. In flight the Prairie Falcon shows a black patch under the base of each wing. Sexes are similar.
The Peregrine Falcon is medium-sized to large, with a black “helmet” or “hood” covering the top of the head and extending below the eye. Adults have blue-gray backs and barred underparts, while young birds have dark brown backs and striped underparts.
The Caracara inhabits arid, open country at low elevations such as desert brushlands, plains, and savannahs. It is sometimes seen at livestock or slaughter yards. The American Kestrel is found in open habitats, grasslands, deserts, and cities. The Prairie Falcon occurs in canyons, open country, grasslands, and deserts. The Peregrine Falcon can be found in deserts, mountains, and forests where tall cliffs occur. Both Peregrines and Prairie Falcons are sometimes found around tall buidings in cities.
• Diet: The Caracara feeds on carrion and live-caught prey such as small mammals, insects, reptiles, frogs, nestlings, weak or injured birds, and eggs. The American Kestrel feeds mainly on insects. The Prairie Falcon preys on small mammals, reptiles, insects, and ground dwelling birds. Peregrines prey primarily on doves, waterfowl, shorebirds, and passerines.
• Behavior: The Caracara, whose flight is direct and steady, soar for extended periods looking for carrion. It is often found feeding with and harassing vultures.
American Kestrels take smaller and slower prey than the other falcons. During hunting they use rapid wingbeats and hover in one spot before plunging to catch their prey. In the desert, Kestrels hunt in the morning and late afternoon during summer; during winter they are active throughout the day.
Falcons have long tails and long, narrow, pointed wings designed for speed. They have tooth-like projections along the cutting edge of the mandibles that are used to kill prey quickly by severing the spinal cord with a sharp bite. The Prairie Falcon flies low over the ground or soars looking for prey. Its flight is swift and more maneuverable than that of the Peregrine.
The Peregrine Falcon catches birds in flight by diving and taking them by surprise. This falcon strikes its prey with its feet and returns to catch the falling bird. Pairs hunt cooperatively when not nesting.
The Caracara is adapted for walking and hunting on the ground. The bulky, loose nests are placed on the ground or in a tree and are made of twigs and sticks.
Kestrels are cavity nesters using holes in saguaros, trees, telephone poles and buildings. Eggs (4 to 5) are cared for by both of the parents. The young leave the nest in about 30 days. Kestrels have only 1 brood per year.
Both the Prairie Falcons and Peregrine Falcons nest on ledges or cliff sites. The male Peregrine Falcon usually does most of the hunting during nesting and the female broods and feeds the chicks. Falcon populations were in decline before ddt was banned in 1972. Today Prairie Falcon populations are stable and do not appear to be suffering from the past pesticide problems. Peregrine Falcon populations have also rebounded in the United States since the ban.
Traveling naturalists, accustomed to the secretive nature of quail in other habitats, are often startled to see how conspicuous Gambel’s Quail can be in the Sonoran Desert.
Quail in general are plump birds, rather poor fliers, that spend almost all their time on the ground. Thus they have good reason to make themselves unobtrusive, to avoid drawing the notice of predators. Gambel’s Quail are probably no less vulnerable (or tasty) than the other species, yet they behave in ways that call attention to themselves. The males call loudly from low perches; family groups go parading across the flats; coveys of two dozen or more run about clucking in the open. In the sparse plant growth of the desert, it would be impossible for Gambel’s Quail to be as secretive as their relatives that live in denser cover, so perhaps shy behavior would be a non-adaptive waste of energy.
At one time, south-central Arizona had another common type of quail: the Masked Bobwhite. Unfortunately, it required not just desert, but lush desert grassland. Large herds of cattle, brought into this region before the principles of range management were well understood, eliminated most of the grasses; when the grass disappeared, so did the Masked Bobwhites. There are still captive flocks, raised from birds found in Sonora, but conservationists have faced major difficulties in trying to reintroduce these birds to the wild.—Kenn Kaufman
Representative Sonoran Desert species:
Gambel’s Quail (Callipepla gambelii)
asked Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus ridgwayi)
Family: Odontophoridae (New World Quail)
Spanish names: codorniz de Gambel (Gambel’s Quail), codorniz común (Masked Bobwhite)
Quail are terrestrial birds with short round wings, stout legs with four toes (hind toe is elevated and does not come into contact with the ground), and short, conical bills. The Gambel’s Quail has a black top-knot that curves forward; the male only has a black throat, face and belly. Plumage is gray with white, chestnut and buff. The Masked Bobwhite has no top-knot; plumage is brown, black, and buff; the male has a black face and throat with chestnut brown underparts; the female and young have cream colored underparts, face, and throat.
Gambel’s Quail occur in mesquite habitat, desert scrub, thorn thickets, and riparian areas; often are found in habitats with water nearby. Historical habitat of the Masked Bobwhite was tall grass bordered by mesquite. Before 1880 the masked bobwhite was common in Arizona from the Baboquivari Mountains east to the Santa Cruz valley. Today, it is extinct in Arizona except for a reintroduced population at the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge.
• Diet: Mostly seeds.
• Behavior: Gambel’s Quail are the most arid-adapted quail. During the summer the quail are active early mornings and late afternoons when temperatures are not extreme. They avoid heat stress by resting in the shade during the hottest part of the day. Quail must either drink water daily or obtain it from their food. They can eat insects and succulent fruits of cacti to get this water. Quail also eat seeds and plants. They roost in bushes and low dense trees.
Masked Bobwhite forage in flocks (coveys), except during breeding season; they sometimes move up into shrubs and vines to forage on berries and leaves.
Quail are gregarious birds. In the fall and winter they often live in coveys of 20 or more individuals, but they pair off during the nesting period. They spend a lot of time on the ground in brushy areas, usually running across hot or open areas to cover. They fly short distances when startled or to avoid predators.
Gambel’s Quail usually have 1 brood of 10 to 12 pale-buff eggs. The female incubates the eggs for 21 to 24 days. The nest is a shallow depression lined with grass, leaves, and vegetation; it is on the ground or no more than 10 feet off the ground. All eggs hatch on the same day and the precocial chicks are fully covered with down. They leave the nest soon after hatching, relying on their parents to protect them and to locate food.
Masked Bobwhite were extirpated from the United States due to the destruction of grasslands. Overgrazing and other abuses of southern Arizona resulted in the disappearance of these quail from Arizona during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Attempted reintroductions have not been very successful.
Most members of the rail family are associated with water, but not all in the same ways. “Typical” rails inhabit dense marshes, and are seldom seen as they slip among the cattails and other aquatic plants. In contrast, coots are rail relatives that act like ducks, swimming and diving freely on open water. Moorhens and Gallinules behave like either ducks or rails, sometimes swimming in the open and sometimes fading into the marsh. All of these birds have distinctive voices, but the typical rails call mostly at night, in keeping with their secretive nature.
Although they appear to be weak fliers, members of the rail family have established themselves all over the globe, even colonizing many oceanic islands. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that they manage to find the wetlands scattered through the Sonoran Desert. American Coots and Common Moorhens may appear on any marsh-edged ponds, and a couple of small species (Virginia Rail and Sora) are widespread as winter visitors. The most notable rail of the region is the Yuma Clapper Rail. This endangered subspecies is practically confined to the marshes of the lower Colorado River.—Kenn Kaufman
Sonoran Desert species:
Yuma Clapper Rail (Rallus longirostris yumanensis)
American Coot (Fulica americana)
Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus)
Spanish names: ralón (rail), gallareta (coot and moorhen)
Coots and moorhens are both the size and shape of chickens (but behave more like ducks); they also have chicken-like bills, white in the case of the adult coot, red in the moorhen. When swimming, they pump their heads back and forth as they go. Rails, which are rarely seen, are henlike in appearance, narrow-bodied for running through the marsh vegetation (“thin as a rail”), and cryptically colored.
• Diet: Coots and moorhens eat aquatic plants and animals. Rails do as well, though they forage on land, or in shallow water, slipping about through dense marsh vegetation.
All these birds are found associated with freshwater cattail marshes of lakes, ponds, and rivers or coastal marshes. Coots are frequently found on open water; rails seldom are.
All members of the rail family can swim and dive, but Coots are as aquatic as ducks. They have lobes along their toes, which flare out on the back stroke to give them propulsion and which fold back on the forward stroke.
Moorhens, also called Gallinules, are equally at home in the water or on shore; long toes help them walk across the water on the tops of water plants. They are less gregarious and somewhat more secretive than coots.
The Yuma Clapper Rail is the only Clapper Rail that occurs in freshwater marshes in the United States. Its historic habitat was the marshes of the Colorado River delta in Mexico. Most of these marshes have dried up or been destroyed through channelization, and although the creation of marshes behind dams elsewhere in the Colorado river system has extended the rail’s range, it is still endangered. The only population of this subspecies in Mexico is found at the Ciénega de Santa Clara on the former flood plain of the lower Colorado River.
Shorebirds in general do most of their foraging along the water’s edge, probing in soft mud or picking at the surface in search of tiny invertebrates. They belong to several related families. The largest shorebird group is the sandpiper family (Scolopacidae); nearly two dozen species of sandpipers migrate through the Sonoran Desert, but for the most part their presence with us is fleeting, a few days’ stopover as they travel between breeding grounds on Arctic tundra and wintering grounds on southern coasts. More relevant here are two long-legged waders and one plover that are with us for much of the year.
The avocets and stilts make up a small family, with only a few species worldwide. All are slim birds with long necks, thin bills, very long legs, and striking patterns. All forage in shallow water, feeding on small invertebrates. North America has one avocet and one stilt. Both have ranges which extend into the Sonoran Desert, where they seem to have benefited from human activity; most of their modern nesting sites are around the edges of artificial ponds.
Members of the plover family have distinctively short bills and short necks. When foraging they often run a few steps and then pause, and then run a few more, stopping now and then to pick up something from the ground. Although many plovers stick to typical shorebird haunts such as beaches and mudflats, a few thrive in dry fields, far from water. The Killdeer, our most familiar plover, is intermediate in its choice of habitats. Elsewhere it is common on farm fields and large lawns, but in desert regions it is usually not too far from water.—Kenn Kaufman
Representative Sonoran Desert species:
Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus)
Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus)
American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana)
Families: Charadriidae (Killdeer), Recurvirostridae (Stilts and Avocets)
Spanish Names: tildío (Killdeer), avoceta (Stilts and Avocets)
The plover family, to which Killdeer belong, are distinguished by their pigeon-like bills; Stilts and Avocets have slender bills (curved upward in the case of Avocets) and very long legs, the Stilt’s being “grotesquely long” according to The Peterson Field Guide to Western Birds. Their color patterns are also distinctive.
These shorebirds inhabit the shorelines of lakes, ponds, rivers, and seas. The Killdeer, which is common throughout the year, lives in open, irrigated farmlands or in fields far from water. The avocet and stilt occur widely in migration, but withdraw from most of our area in winter.
• Diet: Though these birds will eat aquatic vegetation or seeds, insects and tiny crustaceans make up the majority of their diet.
• Behavior: These birds are active feeders, often foraging in groups, often rather noisily. Their feeding behavior is fun to watch. Killdeer find their food visually in the mud of fields or shores. The Black-necked Stilt walks about in shallow water or on the shore, picking up insects. And the American Avocet finds its food by feel beneath the water, using its bill to sweep in front of it as it walks along.
These 3 species draw attention to themselves with their loud and idiosyncratic cries. These are ground-nesting birds, whose eggs are well camouflaged and whose downy chicks can run about and find their own food shortly after hatching. Adults defend eggs or chicks with a repertoire of distraction displays. All 3 birds are good runners and strong flyers.
The Sonoran Desert would have a very different sound if it were not for the doves. The cooing songs of four species are among the classic bird voices here for much of the year.
Mourning Doves are found throughout North America except for the coldest regions, but in the desert they are among the most numerous birds year-round. A bigger relative, the White-winged Dove, is extremely common along southwestern rivers in summer. The rich cooing of the white-wings on spring mornings may virtually drown out the voices of other birds. More unobtrusive is the little Common Ground-Dove, which usually stays close to dense thickets. Another small species, the Inca Dove, is not really a desert bird; it is more likely to be found mincing about on lawns. Spreading north out of Mexico, it has become one of the most familiar birds in southwestern U.S. cities.
About 300 species of doves and pigeons are found worldwide. All have short blunt bills, stout bodies, and rather small heads. Our doves eat mostly seeds, but tropical species may eat many small fruits as well. Dove nests are haphazard platforms of sticks, so flimsy that the eggs or young sometimes fall through them; as if to make up for this, the birds may make repeated nesting attempts, raising several broods per year.
Doves love water, and it is only through their strong powers of flight that they are able to thrive in the desert; they may fly long distances to get to reliable sources of water. Flocks of doves hurtling overhead are a characteristic sight on desert evenings.—Kenn Kaufman
Sonoran Desert species:
White-winged Dove (Zenaida asiatica)
ourning Dove (Zenaida macroura)
Common Ground-Dove (Columbina passerina)
Inca Dove (Columbina inca)
Spanish Names: paloma pitahayera and paloma de alas blancas (White-winged Dove), huilota común, paloma triste and tórtola coluda (Mourning Dove), tortolita común (Inca Dove), tortolita de milpas (Ground-dove)
The White-winged Dove is a light brown bird with a white patch on the wing (it looks like a thin, white border when the wings are folded). Tail is round and outer feathers are tipped in white.The Mourning Dove has a brown body, blue-gray wings, and long pointed tail. The Inca Dove is pale brown; rufous primaries are visible when the bird displays or flies; upper body looks scaled; slender tail with white sides.The Common Ground-Dove is light brown with a short black tail; it looks slightly scaled. The adult male has a blue crown with much purple in the neckshield area and shoulders. This is the smallest dove in the area.
The White-winged Dove is found in all desert habitats; most leave for the winter although pockets remain, especially in suburbs and in riparian zones. The Mourning Dove is found in all desert habitats throughout the year. The Inca Dove is most often found around human settlements throughout much of the Sonoran Desert region. The Common Ground-Dove is found throughout the year most often in dense brushy desert or in riparian areas.
• Diet: All 4 doves are seed and fruit eaters. Doves grind seeds in their muscular stomachs (or gizzards) using sand or gravel much like internal teeth.
Doves are strong, fast fliers and noisy too, as they clap their wings together when they start into flight. Doves can live in deserts because they can fly long distances to find food and water. During winter they congregate, but pair off during breeding season. Dove nests look like flimsy, careless arrangements, and they can be built almost anywhere—in trees, on the ground, in hanging pots. A pair can raise several broods a year.
The Inca Dove has the longest breeding season of any Arizona bird: January to November. That fact, plus its preference for grass and weed seeds, have made the Inca Dove the most abundant bird in southwestern urban areas, after the house sparrow.
White-winged Doves are important players in the life history of the saguaro. Along with bats, bees, and other insects, they help pollinate it as they fly from flower to flower to sip nectar. White-winged Doves also disperse saguaro seeds: they eat the fruit, then regurgitate it to their young; in the process some seed falls beneath the nest where it germinates, and the young saguaro grows in the protection of the tree.