Desert Birds Come Courting

Gilded Flicker examines cavity nest

Spring unfolds quickly in the desert, and the season’s star actors are birds. After a winter of quiet, they appear on the scene in early February, acting out courtship dramas on stages such as Saguaro cacti and Ironwood trees. The first group I noticed were House Finches, singing and twirling together in the sky, chasing each other tree to tree. Their trilling songs herald the pre-spring dawn, as the male sings with vigor to his female. He will woo her, guard her and feed her while she incubates their eggs.

Male House Finch on Saguaro


Cactus Wrens sound like a car that won’t start

Curve-billed Thrashers shared the early season spotlight. Suddenly they were apparent, on the ground with a twig, and in a Buckhhorn Cholla cactus, checking out the site for nesting potential. Cactus Wrens also became conspicuous, belting out their churring songs from the tops of Saguaros, and even chasing each other among the rooftops on our street.   

Curve-billed Thrasher considers nest options

Next on the scene are the cavity nesters. Both Gila Woodpeckers and Gilded Flickers seem to be everywhere around Saguaros these days, calling back and forth from the tops of the stately cacti, peeking into cavities and drumming on the green cacti skin.  Choosing nests, declaring territories, cementing pair bonds, it is a busy build up to actual nesting. 

A week ago, I watched a pair of Gilded Flickers inspecting a nest high on the east side of a Saguaro.  The male first peered repeatedly into the cavity, disappeared down inside, came out and circled the ridged stem, then drummed vigorously.  When he flew off, it was the female’s turn to execute the same maneuvers.  Four flickers danced and sang together in our front yard at evening time.  Hopping from a sprawling prickly pear to the ground they bowed, stretched their beaks to the sky, flared their tails and sang in high chittering notes. It was a thrilling performance.

Most recently I’ve heard the beautiful and endlessly varied song of the Northern Mockingbird, the male sings in the morning and even in the middle of the night.  Today on my hike, I watched a playful pair on a Saguaro, flying up in the air and flashing their white wing patches, dropping from the rounded top of the cactus to one of its upraised arms.  The partner waited for his turn in the spotlight, then whistled, flew up and tumbled back down in a flutter of grey and white feathers.

All of this excitement and play is a prelude to the grueling work of feeding and protecting nestlings.  Although courtship is highly visible, nests and babies are usually kept well out of sight.     

Northern Mockingbird

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