Desert Birds

"There is no trash dump in this town. Everything is thrown into the river."
mountain guide in Huaray, Peru
Go Back to Nature 

Joshua Tree National Park is a large Park, and covers both the high and low desert. There are about 250 species of birds which have been seen within the Parks boundaries. Some of these birds are common and seen often, while others may have only been seen in the Park a few times. Some of these birds are present year round, some are seasonal , while others are here for who knows what reason. The birds I chose to list here on this site are the ones that are considered common, and are observed frequently by visitors to the Park.

Cactus Wren Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus
The cactus wren is the state bird of Arizona and the largest of 9 wren species found in the United States. Their nests are strange ball-shaped structures, often as big as a man's head. In the nests will be 4 to 6 eggs. Wrens eat insects, and well as fruits and berries, seeds, lizards, and tree frogs. Sometimes they will overturn small stones, looking for bugs underneath. These birds are not very attractive birds. If you are close enough, you will notice that they have an orange to red iris of the eye. They often run on the ground or fly close to the ground, so they are usually hard to spot, especially in bushy areas. When singing, they are more easily spotted, for they will often sing from the top of a bush or cacti. The males do most of the singing, especially during mating season.
 
 
 
 
Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis
The Red-tailed hawk is the most commonly seen hawk in the desert. Red-tailed hawks live in many environments; deserts, grasslands, woods, and mountains. Red-tailed hawks eat rodents, small mammals, small birds, snakes, and most other small animals. They build large bulky nests in trees or cacti. Pairs mate for life. Large birds are declining in America, due to loss of habitat and irresponsible acts from humans.
American Kestrel Falco sparverius
This is the smallest and most common native falcon to the West. The females are larger then the males. The American Kestrel is also known as a "sparrow" hawk. It feeds mainly on insects, especially grasshoppers and crickets. They also eat mice, lizards, and other small animals. Each pair will have 4 or 5 eggs and the eggs are incubated by both parents. Kestrels are fast flyers.
Mourning Dove Zenaida Macroura
Pigeons and doves are in the same family of birds, but doves are usually smaller. It's name comes from it's sad call. When they fly, their wings make a whistling noise. They eat on the ground and feed on seeds and small insects. To help digest seeds, doves eat sand with the seeds. Mourning doves make flimsy nests of twigs.
Great Horned Owl Bubo virginianus
This owl is the largest and most often seen owl in the desert. They feed on rabbits, squirrels, rodents, and skunks. They also eat many small birds. They nest in abandon hawk, eagle, or raven nests. They will lay between 2 and 6 eggs, and will fiercely protect their nest and young.
Ladder-backed Woodpecker Picoides scalaris
This is the smallest woodpecker seen in the desert regions. It's name comes from the unusual markings on it's back. Their feet have two toes pointing forward and two pointing backwards to help them climb trees quickly. They also have pointed feathers, which are used to prop themselves upright. They eat cacti fruit and insects. The Ladder-backed Woodpecker eats in trees or on the ground. Except during mating season, they are usually solitary and shy. They drill holes in agaves yuccas, mesquite, and cottonwood or willow trees, but will also drill into telephone or fence poles.
Black-throated Sparrow Amphispiza bilineata
The black-throated sparrow has two white facial stripes to go with it's black throat. This sparrow is also known as the "desert sparrow." During the winter, the black-throated sparrow joins other flocks of birds, and this "safety in numbers' trait keeps it safer from preditors. During the mating season, the males sing to the females. They feed on the ground and eat insects and seeds. They also consume small bits of gravel to help round up the seeds. This bird lives in the desert all year round. They will often build their nest in the thorny branches of the desertr cholla cacti. In the neset will be 3 or 4 bluish-white eggs.
House Finch carpodacus mexicanus
The male is brown with reddish streaks on it's head, throat, breast, and butt. It has quite a lovely musical song. The house finch adapts well to human settlement, and home bird feeders have been a big supplement to their scarce winter food supply. Often they will travel to areas above 7500 feet for the hot summer, but return to the low desert lnads for winter. This is one of the most commonly seen and heard birds in the southwest.
Northern Mockingbird mimus polyglottos
These noisy birds are hard to miss. Their scientific name translates to "many-tounged mimic." Mocking birds can mimic other bird's songs, and have been known to mimic the songs of up to 39 other bird species. They also mimic other noises and sounds, such as barking dogs, cats, music notes, and squeeky gates. Other than mimic others, they have their own song, and the males sing to the females at night during the spring. They will aggressively defend their territory against other bird, or other animals, including dogs, cats, and humans. Mockingbirds eat insects such as beetles and grasshoppers, but will also eat snails, lizards, and small snakes. They also eat cacti fruits.
Anna's Hummingbird Calypte anna
Anna's Hummingbird is larger than the black-chinned hummingbird, but has a shorter bill. The female has a red throat patch, and the male has a red crown. This hummingbird is about 4 inches long and has a wingspan of just over 5 inches. This hummingbird is found along most of the West Coast areas. They usually nest in the mountains.
Verdin Auriparus flaviceps
This bird is usually seen by itself, and eats small insects, fruit, and nectar. The adult male has a bright yellow head. It has a short sharp beak and a shortish tail too. It is about 4 1/2 inches long and has a wingspan of 6 1/2 inches. Their nests can be found in cat's claws or mesquite trees.
Bushtit Psaltriparus minimus
This bird is always found in flocks, and the flocks are active and move around rapidly and with much noise. The bushtit feeds on aphids and other small insects. This bird is small, gray in color and has a roundish body.
Costa's Hummingbird Calypte costae
This is one of the West's smallest birds, at about 3 1/2 inches. long. It nests from January to March , after the winter rains. The male has a purple crown. The female looks very much like the female black-chinned hummingbird. This hummingbird has a very short tail.
Silky-flycatcher/ Phainopepla Phainopepla nitens
This bird is usually found in small flocks, and feeds on berries. The adult male has white feathers on the ends of it's wings. It's color is mostly dark and unpatterned.
European Starling Sturus vulgaris
This bird is common throughout the whole United States, and was introduced to New York from Europe in the late 1800's. It is one of America's most common birds, and is found in large flocks. The European starling eats on the ground and eats grubs, worms, insects, seeds, and fruit. It has a short, square tail.
Spotted Towhee Piplo maculatus
This is a solitary bird which forages on the ground for seeds and insects. It looks like a sparrow but is larger and fatter than a sparrow. The spotted towhee has a largish tail and white wingbars.
Turkey Vultures Carthartes aura septentrionalis

Every spring and autumn, a strange phenomena occurs in the Mojave, when thousands of turkey vultures gather. You can see them roosting on tree branches. The name comes from the Greek word, Kathartes, meaning "purifier". Turkey Vultures, as scavengers, are the purifiers of the desert. When not sitting on tree branches, they are out flying together, often times in large circular patterns, like a huge whirlwind. It's a strange and wonderful sight. Sometimes you can see many of these groups of birds, looking like many whirlwinds, each grouping staying separate, yet following this circular pattern. After this group performance, they take off for Mexico to spend the winter months. Another place Turkey Vultures are sure to be found is anywhere near anything dead. Their bald red heads mirror the rotten red meat of road kill and other dead animals.

Turkey Vultures have no sweat glands to keep themselves cool, so they must keep themselves cool in other ways. They cool themselves by opening their wings to ventilate their bodies, and they breathe through their open beaks. They quickly discover dead animals to eat, and soon a crowd appears. They find their meal by smell, or sight, or by observing the presence of insect which accompany dead animals. One they find a dead animal, they will stay until only bones are left. A female will usually lay one or two eggs, and feed the young solely through regurgitation The nest is a foul, stinky place, smelling of rotten flesh and bird shit. The young are so ugly that they are cute, and they are all fluffy down and fuzzy. The parents must ram their beaks down the youngs' mouths, because the little ones cannot swallow. These birds cannot sing, caw, or cry, but they can make d strange hissing wheezing noise. If bothered, teased, or molested, they will bite. Turkey Vultures never attack anything living for food. They lack the strength and ability to hunt live food. They are peaceful and harmless birds and they fear only man. It is unfortunate that they are hunted by man, because they play such a vital role in keeping nature's balance. They have hooked beaks, which helps them in tearing flesh. Often times if they are feeding on a larger dead animal (horse, cow, burro ), they will eventually eat away flesh and crawl inside the carcass for more feasting. Sometimes they eat so much, they can barely fly. Although peaceful birds, they do scrap amongst themselves while feeding. They drink a lot when water is available and enjoy bathing.

Ravens Corvas corax sinuatus

Ravens have a bad reputation. Strange superstitions, Indian lore, Edgar Allen Poe poem...all paint a not so favorable picture of this dark bird. Do not confuse the raven with a crow; crows are smaller and travel in flocks, where ravens are larger and are singular or in pairs. When crows fly, they flap their wings almost continually, when ravens soar and glide. Crows and ravens also have a different distinct call or caw. In the California deserts, it's ravens you see, and rarely crows. Ravens mate for life, and this is why they are often seen in pairs. They are excellent fliers and are often seen doing acrobatics. Their nests are built high on rock ledges so predators cannot get to them. They can occupy the same nest year after year. The nests are often smelly and full of fleas. Ravens will also steal nests from owls or falcons. They lay 3-7 eggs each year. Adults eat wild mice, young rabbits, the eggs of other birds, road kill, and very unfortunately baby desert tortoises. If you climb a lot at Joshua Tree National Park, you'll come across ravensí nests. Please be kind to the adults, and definitely never disturb a nest with eggs or babies. These birds are awesome, deserve our respect, are protected in the Park, and are a vital part of the balance of the desert ecosystem.