Arizona: A winter month bird bonanza!

By Dave Hanks

First, this southerly location receives visitors from Mexico – a country with birds not found in the more northern states of America. Also, its desert landscape causes many species to be in abundance in the less arid and lusher areas. Some special areas Carolyn and I would visit during winter months to do photography start at the top of the state and extend into its southeastern corner.

Just below Flagstaff at Cottonwood is Dead Horse Ranch. It has many water birds, many scrubland species, and River Otter. This spot has always been productive enough for a several day stay.

South of Phoenix is Picheco State Park with its desert adapted species. Further south at Tucson is a very rich area. The Sonora Desert parks, both west and east portions add more variety, and all three parks increase the winter picture bounty.

Perhaps, Catalina State Park, north of Tucson, has yielded the most variety: Cardinals, Pyrrhuloxia, Cactus Wrens, Roadrunners, Goldfinch, Thrashers, and several Woodpeckers to name a few.

Further south, just north of Nogales, is Madera Canyon. This higher elevation provides a woodland habitat of Scrub Oak, Juniper, and Yucca. It sports four special species: Arizona Woodpecker, Bridled Titmouse, White-Breasted Nuthatch, and Scott’s Oriole.

From Patagonia Lake we travel to the Chirricahua Mountains and Portal in the southeastern corner. This is the real bird capital of Arizona. One can hardly get the feeders out before the birds that are waiting in the trees swoop down to feast. Peccary and Coati Mundi are two mammals that are there to experience also.

Crissel’s Thrasher: An exciting discovery and photo session

Crissel’s Thrasher: An exciting discovery and photo session


An Attractive Brown – Capped with Red

The ARIZONA WOODPECKER, a sub-species of Strickland’s Woodpecker, is quite attractive for a brown and white bird. Most male woodpeckers have a red crown, and so it is with this species. The red adds a very pleasing contrast to the brown. This is the only brown and white woodpecker in North America, therefore it is easily identified.

This bird has four basic calls: a rattle made by the male calling the female while in flight; a sharp, squeaky keech by the female when answering; a peep call to warn any intruder in their territory; and a tuk-tuk-tuk call by the babies when receiving food. The male does a fluttering, gliding display when courting the female, and they both drill a cavity that is about 12 inches deep and is left unlined. The young are altricial and are constantly brooded by either parent.

Their habitat is within southwestern oak or oak/pine forests that are between 4900 to 5500 feet elevation – where they feed on the insects in a tree’s bark by starting at the base of the trunk and then working up to the top. This species is vulnerable, because it is tied to a narrow forest elevation range.

We always look with great anticipation for this species when we are in its habitat. Once on a bird walk, some people had heard that an Arizona Woodpecker was in the area and really, really wanted to see it. We all looked and looked but couldn’t find it. The next day, my wife and I went to the same area. There he was out in the open just pecking away. We watched him for some time. This species is harder to find than other woodpeckers that have louder calls. They are also less abundant. When we do find one, it’s a real “charge”! They will come to suet, and they seem to like peanut butter that’s smeared on a tree’s trunk.

The southwest has many colorful forest bird species, and that is a lure that often draws us south during the winter or early spring months.

A male Arizona Woodpecker foraging on the underside of a limb

A male foraging on the underside of a limb

The Cotton Rat: Pest or Prey

I sit all day in a bird blind, on a private ranch, in southern Texas. It is April and the neo-tropical bird migration is in full swing. It cost a tidy sum for the privilege of sitting here, and I hope to get my money’s worth. Not only birds visit the feeding area in front of me, but a few mammals. One mammal that is a frequent visitor is a Cotton Rat. I discuss the occurrence of the rats with my host, who educates me to its relationship with the area’s Bobcats.

The Cotton Rat is named for its habit of building its nests out of cotton. This can be a major problem for cotton farmers. This rodent is found in southern Arizona, southern New Mexico, southern Texas, and into Mexico. It likes tall grass areas or cultivated fields. Like most rodents, it is very prolific – having 5 litters a year of 7 to 10 young at each nesting. The young leave the nest at 2 weeks of age and start breeding at 6 weeks. Wow! What a reproductive machine!

They are omnivores: eating grass, sedges, domestic grains, insects, and eggs. This 9 to 11 inch (1/2 pound) rat can be a real concern for agriculturists. Populations erupt over several years, but then crash – disease being the major cause. Coyotes, and especially Bobcats, find them as a major food source where the rat occurs. Bobcat populations of those southern areas rise and fall in direct relation to the rat’s population cycling.

Besides serving as prey, there is another benefit derived from this very pugnacious and quarrelsome rodent. They have proven to be useful in influenza virus research.

Sigmodon fulviventer in a feasting mode

The Coati Mundi: The Raccoon’s Big Cousin

I sat in front of a bird watering and feeding spot in southern Arizona – when suddenly what should appear, but a very large raccoon-like animal. I’d never seen one like it before. He came to drink sugar water out of a jar hanging on a limb – and he made short work of it, licking it clean enough to put back into the cupboard. He then turned his attention to me, and I responded by getting up on the back of my chair.

He was bigger than his cousin (longer and heavier), with a very long nose and tail. However, the tail was banded (raccoon-like). The long nose is adapted to experience an acute sense of smell. Perhaps that was why he came at me. Ha, ha! My research identified him as a Coati Mundi (kow’ aatee monday) These animals are diurnal omnivores that forage for food in daylight, which is different than their cousins.

Coati are excellent climbers and can easily come down a tree head first, because they can rotate their hind feet in the process. They sleep in trees in a nest of branches and leaves. They can run 15 miles per hour, which is about as fast as the average human can go. Their name indicates solitariness. However, the male is the loner. The females will collect in groups of up to 30. The male only joins the group to mate. Their life span is about seven years.

Some folks think they’re cute and try to make pets out of them. That’s a bad idea, because they don’t domesticate. An entertainer by the name of Andy Hernandez has taken Coati Mundi as his stage name – which is appropriate because this is a South and Central American, Mexican, and southwestern USA species.

 Coati Mundi

Grandma, what a long nose you have!

Black Vultures can be Urban Pests!

This cousin of our Turkey Vulture is usually a benefit to us. Like all vultures, it rids our surroundings of dead animals. But when population numbers increase, or because of urban expansion, they can become a big problem. No one likes to find bird “whitewash” and vomit all over their shrubbery and yards. A Washington D.C. suburb has reported flocks of them, settling in for the night, on pine trees in people’s yards. Upward of a 100 to 200 might come in to a group of trees – so many that branches would break because of the weight. Some species will adjust to living with humans. This is one of them.

Compared to our Turkey Vulture, it is a bit smaller, lacks the red head, and has whitish wing tips. Like all vultures, it has a bald head. This bird has no voice box but can hiss or grunt when disturbed, whether on a carcass or by its nesting area. I say nesting area because it constructs no nest at all – just lays two eggs on the ground under a bush. Young birds take 75 to 80 days to fledge and 3 years to reach maturity. It is very dominant when on a carcass – driving any competition (even larger species) away.

We don’t see this bird in Cassia County because it inhabits the southern and southeastern (especially coastal areas) of the country. Urban areas are warmer than the surrounding countryside. This is called the Urban Island Effect, and it attracts these birds. Noise makers have been used to disturb and move these birds away, along with harmless laser beams, but these methods only move them onto other people’s property. The Migratory Treaty Act of 1918 protects this bird along with other species.

We became aware of this bird in the Everglades of Florida and in southern Arizona and Texas.

A Black Vulture just west of the L.B.J. ranch in Texas

A Black Vulture just west of the L.B.J. ranch in Texas

A Raucous Blue and Gray in the Live Oak

MEXICAN JAYS (also known as Gray-Breasted Jays) are a very attractive species, but they are extremely noisy and aggressive. In southern Arizona campgrounds, they will often be the first bird to grace your food offerings. Once one has found the source, he will broadcast the fact to all around. We have found that they readily come to peanut butter or suet. Fruit, seeds, and insects are also consumed, but acorns make up the biggest part of their diet. That is why this bird is found in Oak woodlands. They will cache acorns and pine nuts for winter consumption. Their memory is good, and therefore they are moderately skillful at finding the caches.

These very social birds are found in groups of 5 to 25. Three years are required to reach sexual maturity, and then reproduction is a community affair. A nest will contain 4 to 7 pale green eggs that are the result of several parents. DNA tests have shown this to be true. Feeding the young is also a cooperative effort, with the previous year’s offspring (whether related or not) getting in on the act. Young birds are a duller blue and have white at the base of their bill.

Flickers that have migrated south for the winter will follow the jays. The jay’s noisiness and alarm calls alert the flickers to the presence of a predator. We also appreciate this species when we migrate to southerly climes. They alert other bird species to come to the banquet that we have laid out as a lure.

Mexican Jays don’t migrate and the young do not disperse very far from where they were hatched. Seven sub-species are found within their range which covers Mexico, southern Arizona, southern Texas, and southern New Mexico. Twenty years is a long life span for birds, but this jay often survives that long. The many eyes of the group make it difficult for an enemy to surprise them.

A Mexican jay sits on a water spigot

Mexican Jay

Cactus Wren – The Voice of the Desert

Arizona’s state bird is an early morning vocalist. Its song resonates on the desert air. This low pitched, harsh, rapid “cha-cha-cha-cha-cha” has great carrying power. On early morning excursions, in the arid regions of the southwestern USA, it is pleasant to be serenaded by this bird.

The Cactus Wren is huge when compared to other wrens – 8 to 9 inches long as opposed to 4 ½ or less. Its underside has a densely spotted breast and a streaked belly. This bird can eat almost any kind of plant material or insects.Its long. narrow beak is especially handy when probing through all types of vegetation.

Cholla cacti are preferred as nest sites. The sharp cactus spines discourages snakes and other predators from disturbing the nest. They will also protect their nests by mobbing predators – many birds flying at and harassing an enemy. Ground squirrels, that were mobbed when trying to get at a nest, have been observed impaled on cactus thorns.

They must have tough feet because thorns do not seem to bother them! Two bulky nests are built: one is for the young and the other is for roosting. The roosting nest is necessary because the cold desert nights affect them more than the extremely hot daytime temperatures. They will also destroy the nests of other birds, thereby keeping breeding density and their competition at a lower level.

One of our first experiences, with this highly inquisitive species, was when a wren was on our camper’s bumper trying to gain access into our living quarters. We have also observed them flying inside of cars when the windows were left open. All wrens seem to have this behavioral trait and can be lured into sight by “pishing” – which is making a noise with your lips that sounds much like what it is called.

We only go south in the cooler weather, but this year-round resident is always there – its song a constant reminder of its presence.

Cactus Wren Comfortable on a Cholla

Comfortable on a Cholla