Posts Tagged ‘Cactus Wren’

Mountain Bluebird

November 7, 2011

The origin of bird names often is obscure. Sometimes it is difficult, if not impossible to discern what Adam was thinking. A “Bananaquit”? A “Lapwing”? How about “Bushtit”? Where did those names come from? The list of obscure bird names stretches across many pages of field guides.

But sometimes a name is perfectly obvious. For instance, “Mountain Bluebird.” The bird is blue and it lives in mountains. According to Kaufman, they, “Hover in midair before dropping to pick up insects from the ground.” One is hovering in this photo. See if you can spot it.

Hovering Mountain Bluebird

Here is a close-up.

On the recent day I was in these mountains, several hovered on the breeze blowing up from the river canyon below the ridge where I stood. I actually thought they might be eating insects that were floating on that breeze, not picking them off the ground, but who am I to argue with Kenn Kaufman who, I am certain, has forgotten more about birds than I will ever know. And they were dropping to the ground, relaunching, and hovering, so they probably were eating insects off the ground; stocking up for winter I imagine. It snowed in those mountains two days later.

Of course, many bird species are named for their habitats. Mountain Bluebirds are not alone in that regard. Cactus Wrens nest in cacti. You’ll find Seaside Sparrows exactly where you’d expect. Ovenbirds are brown and live in ovens.


Arizona’s State Bird

October 15, 2008

In our continuing series of brief examinations of the state birds of the United States we move today from Alaska to Arizona.  This progression is completely random and the fact that we’ll probably cover Illinois and Delaware next is in no way connected to the current political campaign in the United States.  Pure coincidence.

Arizona’s state bird is the Cactus Wren.  It builds several nests, sometimes as many as seven.  They use some as homes and some as decoys, although because the Cactus Wren builds its nests in thickly thorned cacti, it is unclear why it needs all those nests.  One likely reason is that adult wrens allow their children to use some of the nests which gets the kids out of the way.  In good years as many as three broods of wrens may fledge. Moreover, the male Cactus Wren, like a fighter pilot, mates with more than one female.  All the nests separate the new broods and the females from one another.  Reminds me of the old Royal Navy toast, “To wives and mistresses, may they never meet!”

It is unknown whether the males remember how many nests they have. Or, for that matter, how many mistresses.

Cactus Wren range

Cactus Wren range

Noisier and larger than any other wrens in their range, Cactus Wrens live in the Chihuahuan, Mojave, and Sonoran Deserts.  Like Louis L’Amour’s Apaches and desert heroes, these wrens are well adapted to the desert.  They are most active during the sunrise and sunset hours when the desert has its mildest temperatures.  During the heat of the day they hang out in shady spots, doing as little as possible.  Because of the scarcity of available water, they evolved as xerophiles, animals which do not need free water but who acquire all their water from their food.  Insects are their primary food.

By the way, insects have taken over the world, so it is a good thing that birds and fish eat them for us.  Insects originated, on dry land, about 400 million years ago.  (By comparison, humans have been here less than 2 million years.)  At least a million different species of insects exist.  According to E.O. Wilson, about a billion billion insects are alive on the planet as you read this.  These insects weigh, if you put them all together — and please, don’t — about one trillion kilograms, more than all the humans on earth combined. “Insects,” according to Dr. Wilson, who has spent his lifetime studying them, “can thrive without us, but we and most other land organisms would perish without them.”

Living in the desert has its advantages. For instance, because it is warm year round, there is no need to migrate and Cactus Wrens don’t.  Better yet, the beetles, ants, moths, spiders and ants don’t freeze or go dormant, so food is constantly available.

The downside for the wrens is that many other animals also like desert living.  Predators such as snakes, roadrunners, and Loggerhead Shrikes are undeterred by the thorny cactus in which the wrens live.  Curved-bill Thrashers compete with them for territory.  Worse — for the wrens — humans also like the warmth of the desert.  We build cities and bring our pet cats along with us and the cats are a significant cause of mortality among Cactus Wrens.  We also destroy their habitat and that is now the leading cause of death for Cactus Wrens.

Of course, we’re not xerophiles and it is a desert. The Cactus Wrens might outlast us.


Many of the facts in this post came from Proudfoot, Glenn A., Dawn A. Sherry and Steve Johnson. 2000. Cactus Wren (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:  You should not blame the scientists for any liberties we may have taken.  The photo was taken by Mark Wagner.

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