Birds

Loggerhead Shrike

The Loggerhead Shrike likes to impale its prey, such as small lizards.

Copyright S. Noll

 
There are over 220 recorded species of birds within White Sands National Monument. High temperatures during the day, especially throughout the summer months, make it unlikely that you will come across these creatures in the heart of the dunefield. However, many of these species are commonly seen in the desert scrub vegetation around the visitor center and entrance station.
 
Cactus Wren

Cactus Wren

NPS Photo

Several species live within and around the monument all year. Among these is the Cactus Wren, the largest of the wren species at almost nine inches in length. This bird is a resident of both the dunefield and desert scrub areas. Usually a ground forager, the Cactus Wren is often seen hopping around under shrubs as it hunts for insects but it has also been seen picking insects off the radiator grills of parked cars. These birds defend their nests very aggressively, with both the male and female ganging up on and attacking any intruders. They will also destroy the nests of other bird species, including destroying the eggs, which can take a toll on those populations.

 
Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird

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Other year-round birds include the Northern Mockingbird, the Loggerhead Shrike, the Greater Roadrunner, the Chihuahuan Raven, and the Great Horned Owl. The Northern Mocking bird is noted for its ability to imitate the songs of other birds. This highly territorial bird is about 10 inches long and has a grey coloration with conspicuous white patches on its wings. It eats mostly prickly pear cactus, fruit, and other plants. They are intelligent birds—the Northern Mockingbird continuously learns and adds new sounds to its vocabulary, with males learning approximately 200 different songs over the course of its life. Both males and females sing, but females are much more quiet than males. While all mockingbirds sing during the day, most of those heard at night are unmated males, and nighttime singing is more commonly heard during the full moon.
 

The Loggerhead Shrike (see large image above) grows to about nine inches long. Similar to the Northern Mockingbird, it is also greyish in color with white wing patches. However, it is distinguished from the mockingbird by a short, powerful beak and a black mask around the eyes. The solitary shrike is a fierce predator and is the only songbird that commonly hunts other vertebrate animals. On its beak are pointy projections called "tomial teeth." This helps the shrike tackle its prey—which often includes vertebrates like rodents and lizards—that it grabs by the nape of the neck, much like a falcon. The bird will impale its prety on thorns or barbed wire to save it for a future meal. It does the same with noxious prey like monarch butterflies and scorpions, allowing these prey items to sit for three days before eating it so that the poisons will break down. Although somewhat small, the Loggerhead Shrike can carry a prey animal the same size as itself.

 
Western Kingbird

Western Kingbird

Copyright S. Noll

Many migratory bird species visit the monument during various times of the year, like the Barn Swallow that nests under the visitor center eaves all summer long. Birds like the Western Kingbird and the Northern Harrier are other examples of migratory birds that are often seen here. The Western Kingbird is a member of the flycatcher family. It has a pale grey breast, a yellow belly, and a black tail with narrow white sides. It is called "kingbird" because it attacks larger hawks, crows, and ravens if they fly too close to its nest, ferociously defending their territories with wing-fluttering, vocal attacks. Feeding primarily on insects, they hunt by sight during the day, catching flying insects in mid-flight or nipping them off vegetation. A kingbird may catch two or more insects before it returns home to skake or beat their meal in order to subdue it before the bird eats them.

 
Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier

Copyright S. Noll

The Northern Harrier grows up to 20 inches in length. It is a slender, long-winged, long-tailed hawk and is often identified by the distinctive white patch on its rump. Since the Northern Harrier hunts by sound as well as by sight, it is likely to be seen flying low over the dunefield margins and visitor center as it hunts for small birds and mammals. It is a ground nesting bird and often perches on the ground as well. During a single breeding season, the male Northern Harrier can mate with as many as five different females, although it is far more common for them to have only one or two mates. The male provides most of the food for the females and their young, while the females stay and tend to the eggs and chicks.

For more information on the monument's birds, download our Most Common Birds brochure or Common Birds Species List.

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