Throughout my stay in Scottsdale, the Sonoran Desert continued to surprise me as  the home of a multitude of bird species including a few that really shocked me – let’s start with the woodpecker. I assumed woodpeckers need trees to peck for insects and there is definitely a dearth of trees in the desert.  But there are cacti. I will explain their importance below.

There are a number of woodpecker species found in the Sonoran Desert area including  the state-named Arizona Woodpecker as well as the Gila Woodpecker.

ARIZONA – This woodpecker has the distinction of being the only brown-backed woodpecker in the United States. It can be found in mid-elevation pine oak woodlands in Southeastern Arizona but it is actually another Mexican bird that has crossed the border (you can read about another bird immigrant, the Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, here). The Arizona woodpecker is medium-sized and mostly eats insects and wood-boring beetle larvae.  To supplement its diet it also consumers berries and small fruits.

Unfortunately I did not see any Arizona Woodpeckers in person, so the pictures here are from the internet:

GILA – I spied plenty of this next species, including the one at the top of this post.  Gila Woodpeckers are abundant in the Southwest and they have adapted quite successfully to a tree-scarce environment. Their BFF is the saguaro cactus. They eats its fruits and bore nests in its trunk. Here are some fun facts about the Gila Woodpecker:

  • Instead of foraging for nesting materials, a mated pair of Gila will bore a hole in a saguaro.  It then takes a few months for the nest to be ready as the pulp of the cactus dries to form solid walls around the hole.
  • In addition to eating the fruit of cacti, the Gila also consumes berries and insects and has also been known to drink the sugar-water of hummingbird feeders
  • Gila Woodpeckers are excellent builders and  their abandoned old nests are often reused by other birds.


CACTUS WREN – Another bird that is superbly qualified to withstand the whims of the desert is this little noisy bird – in fact it is the state bird of Arizona. First and foremost, the Cactus Wren can survive without finding a watering hole –  all the liquid sustenance they need  is supplied by their consumption of insects and fruit.  Here are some more fun facts:

  • Cactus Wrens build multiple nests – one is used for nesting and the others are their alternate homes
    • There are often multiple broods per year
    • When the female is sitting on eggs of one brood, the male will take care of  previously hatched nestlings
  • Cactus Wren parents treat their young very well.  Just as my daughter’s nanny used to remove the skin of frankfurters and grapes to make them more palatable. these wren pick off the wings of grasshoppers before feeding the newly wingless insect to their nestlings
    • The nestlings eat at least 14 grasshoppers a day
  • This is another small bird that can be quite fierce
    • It will destroy the nests of other bird species, including the eggs to increase the chances that its nestlings will survive
    • The wren parents will join together to mob potential predators like squirrels to protect their brood




Up next, I travel from the Sonoran Desert of Arizona to the high elevation alpine and aspen mountains of Colorado.


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