Birds at the Desert Museum
Cardinals, Gambel's quail, ducks, doves, and nearly 40 other species of native birds live together in the museum's walk-in aviary. Larger birds await a spacious new home, but in the meantime you can still get an intimate view of majestic raptors, jays, and parrots between the Cactus Garden and the Riparian Corridor.
Active and inquisitive little brown birds, wrens spend their days snooping about, peering into shadows, prying with their thin bills, seeking the insects on which they feed. Often hard to see, they are easy to hear. Male wrens are inveterate singers. They are also industrious nest-builders: in some wren species, the male may build several dummy nests before the female chooses one, adds a soft lining to it, and lays her eggs there.
While most wrens are small, plain, secretive, musical, and solitary, the best-known wren in the Sonoran Desert breaks all those rules. Pairs or family groups of Cactus Wrens, strikingly spotted and striped, go clambering and scrambling about in the open, calling in rough scratchy voices from high perches, boldly peering in the windows of houses on the deserts edge. Its brash behavior earns the Cactus Wren the admiration of its human neighbors and it has been selected as Arizonas official State Bird.
We expect woodpeckers to be in the woods, so it may seem surprising that some are conspicuous in the desert. But for Gila Woodpeckers, saguaros serve in place of trees: these woodpeckers go hitching their way up the sides of the giant cactus, and give voice to strident calls when they reach the top. The holes that they excavate for nesting siteswhich may riddle the arms of some ancient saguarosremain to serve as natural birdhouses for a variety of other birds.
Most woodpecker species feed mainly on insects, seeking them out among the irregularities of tree bark. In the desert, these birds must be more resourceful. Gila Woodpeckers eat cactus fruits, mistletoe berries, and many other items in addition to insects. Highly adaptable, they make themselves at home in southwestern U.S. cities, where they will visit hummingbird feeders and steal dog food from back porches. (They also make themselves unpopular at dawn by hammering out brash wake-up calls on metal pipes and other echoing objects.)
Traveling naturalists, accustomed to the secretive nature of quail in other habitats, are often startled to see how conspicuous Gambels 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. Gambels 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 Gambels 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.
The most famous bird in the Sonoran Desert, without a doubt, the Roadrunner is also the most fictionalized in popular imagination. Cowboys used to tell tall tales about how Roadrunners would seek out rattlesnakes to pick fights, or would find sleeping rattlers and build fences of cactus joints around them. A later generation of Americans grew up thinking that Roadrunners were purple and cried beep beep as they sped about.
Even without such stretches or inventions, the real Roadrunner is impressive. Running in the open (and not just on roads), it reaches fifteen miles per hour. It can fly, but usually doesnt. Often it seems curiously unafraid of humans. Trotting up close to peer at us, raising and lowering its mop of a shaggy crest, flipping its long tail about expressively, it looks undeniably zany. It comes as no surprise to learn that the Roadrunner is a member of the cuckoo family.
Clownlike it may appear to human eyes, but the Roadrunner is a very effective predator. Its speed on foot is not just for show: it captures not only snakes and large insects, but also fast-running lizards, rodents, and various small birds. Gambels Quail may pay scant attention to the Roadrunner at most seasons, but they react to it violently when they have small young, and with good reason: given an opportunity, the Roadrunner will streak in to grab a bite-sized baby quail.