Tuesday, June 18, 2013

How I Taught Myself About Desert Birds

This is the first in a series of posts on bird watching.

When I moved to Tucson in 1989, I literally knew almost nothing about birds. I had spent most of my adult life in New York City, where the birds I saw were mostly pigeons and sparrows. (I have since learned that Central Park is an excellent spot for birding, but I was not tuned in to that when I lived there.)

When I moved into my small townhouse with real trees and a view of the mountains, I was thrilled to see something outside other than trucks or vagrants urinating in the alley. As I sat glued to the window, one of the first things that caught my attention was a black-and-white striped bird on the trunk of my young tangelo tree.

sag blos,dove,gila 5-7-2010 8-17-056  White-winged dove and Gila woodpecker on saguaro blossoms.

I soon learned that the “black and white striped” bird was a Gila woodpecker, one of the most common desert birds. I put up a couple of hummingbird feeders, and soon was obsessed with watching these tiny jewels. In a previous post I described how I gradually learned to tell hummingbird species apart as I added more feeders and more and more hums came to sip from them.

To study the hummers, I sat on my back patio for an hour or two every day with a pair of opera glasses and several books I’d found on hummingbirds. I eventually bought a better pair of binocs and branched out to observing other birds. Because my office window looked directly out on the yard, I was able to see a lot of birds that I didn’t know, but was able to identify with the help of photographs and bird books.

kestrelThis picture of a kestrel, eating a dove it had killed, was shot through my office window. It took me a while with some bird books to figure out what it was.

To attract more birds, I put up more types of feeders—seed feeders and a suet feeder. I put a tiny pond in my yard. More birds came, and I began to learn about mockingbirds, curve-billed thrashers, and Gamble’s quail. I bought more bird books, and read as much as I could. After a year or so, I knew a lot—about a small number of birds. It was time to branch out.

Next: Bird Watcher or Birder?



  1. It seems the only bird we share is the mockingbird, which is apparently ubiquitous. Which is fine by me! Just love that bird.

    1. Well, and house finches. Mourning doves. Some others, I'm sure. I love mockingbirds too.