Here to return to
NESTS AND OTHER MATTERS
WITH the first of April approaching, the life of Arizona birds takes on a busier complexion. The idle season is over; now there are nests to be built (no small undertaking, in itself, as a man may easily find out by setting himself to build one), and a family to be watched over and defended. Now the human visitor begins to understand what cactuses were made for. As he walks among the whitish-green chollas, giving them elbow-room, he has only to glance to right and left to see what a considerable proportion of them are inhabited; this one by a pair of thrashers, the other by a pair of cactus wrens. In neither case is there any serious attempt at concealment; partly because the attempt would be useless; partly, we may guess, because concealment is unnecessary. If your safe is burglar proof, why be at the trouble to hide it? Neither squirrel nor snake is likely to climb a cholla cactus, and even a man knows enough to approach it with caution.
Of the two species of thrasher that live in the desert the larger one, known as Palmer’s, seems to be the earlier breeder. I found a nest with eggs on the first day of March; and on the ninth, I came upon a brood of young birds already out of the nest. They were still new to the world, acting as if they found it a strange, unintelligible place; but they were fully fledged, and when put to it, flew from one cholla to another without difficulty. Still, they had more faith in cactus thorns than in wing-power, and allowed me almost to lay hands on them before taking flight.
The two desert-inhabiting thrashers, by the by, Palmer’s and Bendire’s, are so much alike (the Palmer being somewhat longer and darker than its neighbor), that it was some time before I felt sure of myself in discriminating between them. As to the question of comparative length (one of the most uncertain points on which an observer can base a determination), I fell back upon an old method, which it seems worth while to mention here, because I have never seen it referred to in print. It has served one man well, and may do as much for another.
Two of our Eastern birds that are most troublesome to beginners in ornithology are the downy and the hairy woodpecker, the only difference between them — the only one that can ordinarily be seen in the field, I mean to say — being one of size. Well, I long ago discovered for myself that it was much easier to carry in my eye the comparative measurements of the two birds’ bills than the comparative measurements of the birds themselves. Let me see the head in profile, and I could name its owner almost beyond mistake.
This method, as I say, I resorted to in the case of my two desert thrashers, and little by little (time itself being of great service in such matters), I settled the question with myself. And still there remained a certain fact that cast a shade of doubt over my determination. In Mrs. Bailey’s Handbook, the only authority I had brought with me, Mr. Herbert Brown, after twenty years’ experience with Tucson birds, is quoted as saying that the Bendire thrasher almost never sings, whereas the birds that I was calling by that name were in song continually. What was I to think? It seemed a case for a gun. Without it, how could I ever be sure of my reckoning? I was in a box, as we say. But there was a way out. There almost always is. The two species lay eggs of different colors. I must find them; and with patience I did; first, the blue-green eggs of Palmer, and then (two sets in one day), the whitish eggs of Bendire; and my identification of the owners, made before the eggs were examined, turned out to be correct in all cases.
In the way of music, neither bird is equal to the brown thrasher of the East. In fact, if I am to be judge, one Massachusetts thrasher, in his cinnamon-colored suit (and in the top of a gray birch), could outsing any half-dozen of the birds in this Arizona desert. It is to be said, however, that there is a third species here (not on the face of the desert itself, but in the thickets along the Rillito River), the crissai thrasher so called, whose song I have yet to make sure of. He is larger even than the Palmer, and to look at him should have a fuller voice.
And this reminds me that I had been in Tucson more than a month before I saw a mockingbird; and even now, when I have been here almost two months, I have seen but three. The people generally seem to mistake the thrashers for mockers. If I speak to them about the strangeness of the mocker’s absence, they declare that mockers are common here. At least two persons have turned upon me with the assertion, “Why, there’s one singing out there at this minute.” And they point to a thrasher, a bird that wears not one of the mocker’s three colors, — gray, black, and white, — and for music is as much like him as a child’s tin whistle is like a master’s flute. And still it is true, at least the systematists tell us so, and I have no thought of questioning it, that the mockingbird is only a nobler kind of thrasher. And thrashers, the mocker included, are only larger kinds of wrens.
Arizona is the wrens’ country. During my short stay in Tucson I have seen ten species: the sage thrasher, the Western mockingbird, the Bendire thrasher, the Palmer thrasher, the crissal thrasher, the cactus wren, the rock wren, the canyon wren, the Baird wren, and the interior tule wren.
The sage thrashers, whose mysterious silence was commented upon in a previous article, are only now beginning to find their voices; for they are still (March 21) in the desert, though they will go elsewhere to breed. Two days ago, while returning from the Rillito Valley, I came upon a group of them, and to my great pleasure two or three were in song; not letting themselves out, to be sure, but running over a medley of a tune under their breath in a kind of dumb rehearsal. I could barely hear it, but I saw at once why the birds, for all their short bills and unthrasher-like ways, are called sometimes sage thrashers and sometimes mountain mockingbirds. I hope their sotto voce preludings will not outlast my stay among them.
One of my particular favorites here is the Say phoebe. From the first he took my fancy. All his ways please me. As the homely phrase is, I like the cut of his jib. His plaintive call is never wearisome, though he is exceedingly free with it. And I have grown to like him and his mate the better because they are fond of certain places where I myself am given to spending now and then an idle hour. There are four abandoned shanties in different parts of the desert, in the shade of which I often rest; and every one of them has its pair of Say phoebes. I saw the birds with building materials in their bills, and began by expecting to find the nest inside the open building; but by and by I discovered that they liked best of all a site down in a well! It seems a safe position to begin with — as long as the nest contains nothing but eggs; but I ask myself about the danger to the little ones when they become big enough to be uneasy. If they are anything like young robins, for example, a pitiful share of them must perish sixty feet underground. However, the birds may be presumed to understand their own business better than any outsider can teach it to them; and they unquestionably prefer the well. Of the four pairs just mentioned, three have built in that position (the wells, it should be understood, are not stoned), and the fourth would have done likewise, I dare say, only that the well in their case happens to be covered. As it is, the nest is on one of the joists of a shed, and an impertinent stranger has been known to clamber up and examine the eggs. “Oh, if that well had only been left open!” the birds probably thought, as they saw what he was doing.
One kind of nest that is common here is set so out in sight that none but a blind man could miss it, though from its color it might readily be passed as an old one, not worth investigation. I do not remember just how many I have seen, — half a dozen, it may be, — but I have never looked into one. They cannot be looked into, unless they are first torn to pieces.
I speak of the verdin’s nest. It is a marvel of workmanship: globular, or roughly so, with an entrance neatly roofed over well down on one side; constructed outwardly — I cannot speak beyond that, of course — of countless small thorny sticks, and in size and general color resembling a large paper-wasps’ nest. The bird, as I say, plants it in full sight, in a leafless cat’s-claw bush, by preference, though I have seen one beauty in a palo-verde tree.
My first one I was directed to by the outcries of the owner. The foolish thing — if she was foolish — actually went inside, and while there scolded me. She took it for granted, I suppose, that I had seen her, go in, and was determined to let me know what she thought of such despicable espionage. As a matter of fact, I was busy just then with a rarer bird, and might have passed her pretty house unnoticed had she held her peace. But the verdin is a nervously loquacious body, and perhaps would rather talk than keep a secret. Such cases have been heard of. Whatever else we may say of her, she is an architect of something like genius.