Region III Quarterly

Volume 2 - No. 3

July, 1940


By Harold J. Brodrick,
Assistant Chief Ranger,
Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

Far out in the sand hills, on the brush covered flats, in the dry rocky canyons, or on the high ridges, there is birdlife. Sometimes quiet watching is necessary to detect the birds and again they are the first thing that you see. Frequently the park visitors, upon hearing some bird-song or catching a glimpse of a bird in the bushes, remark: "I didn't suppose you had any birds up here. What do they do for water in this dry country?"

Water is the principal problem of desert life. Many of the birds fly long distances for water; others stay reasonably close to hidden seeps or springs. Some birds are accustomed to remaining in a small area and yet are found far from any known water source. Do they get along without it? Do they make occasional long trips for it, or do they have a closer source unknown to us? Many such questions cannot be answered satisfactorily. In any event, the birds' existence in such a region must be hard.

The following are some of the most common birds of Carlsbad Caverns National Park and the other arid regions of southeastern New Mexico:

The Turkey Vulture is possibly the bird most commonly associated with stories of the desert. He soars and circles on nearly motionless wings, high above the ground, patiently watching for some unfortunate victim of the hard life in a dry land. Common here in the summer, the Turkey Vultures frequently collect in large numbers to roost along some rock ledge of a canyon.

The Western Red-tailed Hawk is a common sight all through the year. Frequently seen circling about, his red tail gleams as he turns into the sunlight and suddenly swoops on some unsuspecting prey which may be carried to the nest in a Spanish dagger plant, or on some rock ledge.

Ferruginous Rough-leg Hawks are common in the winter. They are most frequently seen perched on fence posts near the roadside, apparently waiting for some motorist to run down a rabbit.

The Marsh Hawks, Desert Sparrow Hawks, and Prairie Falcons are frequently seen, as well as the occasional Swainson, Rough-leg, and the rarer Harris Hawks.


Golden Eagles are common but are seldom seen very far from the cliffs where they make their homes.

Arizona Scaled Quail, locally known as "Cotton Tops", are very common, in some cases even a considerable distance from water. Their animal-like barking-call frequently gives notice of their hiding places. The less common but very colorful little Mearns Quail is found only in the higher elevations.

The woodpeckers are not very numerous in the arid sections. The Red-shafted Flicker, being accustomed to feeding almost as much on the ground as in the trees, is common even in comparatively barren sections. Cactus Woodpeckers are sometimes seen in the stands of cane cactus and ocotillo, as well as in the scrub trees and bushes in the canyon bottoms. They sometimes hollow out a mescal stalk for a nest site.

"Ranger, I saw a funny looking bird with a long neck and tail, running through the bushes. Can you tell me what it was?" is a recurrent question from park visitors. It is a Roadrunner, or paisano (Pie-sah-no), the clown of the desert, and, to many of us, the most interesting bird of the southwest. Sometimes he is accused of killing quail and destroying their eggs, but I know of no authentic evidence. His food consists primarily of insects, mice, rats, lizards and snakes. Frequently he tackles a large lizard or snake and then sits, an unhappy expression on his face, and with six or eight inches of lizard tail hanging out of his mouth, as he waits for digestion to be completed.

A person usually associates orioles with gardens and orchards, but here we have the beautiful Scott Oriole, his brilliant black and yellow gleaming among the dull colors of the hillside. In the spring these birds can be seen stripping fiber from the yucca leaves for use in making their artistically woven nests, usually fastened in a Spanish dagger. Bullock Orioles are generally seen in the occasional groups of larger trees, as also is the showy Cooper Tanager.

Meadow Larks are common throughout the year, especially in the lower elevations. This is true of their relatives, the Nevada Redwing and the Brewer Blackbirds. The latter are usually in the vicinity of springs and seeps and the resultant growth of rushes and tamarix, or along the Pecos River.

Out of the quiet of the desert night comes the hoot of the Horned Owl as he drifts along on silent wings searching for his evening meal. He usually appears at dusk to make repeated forays into the column of bats, as they pour out of the mouth of the great caverns.

Other frequenters of the dusk and darkness are the Nighthawks. With eyes gleaming red in the car lights, they fly up suddenly from the road, and sometimes startle motorists.

The White-necked Raven is a solemn dweller of the arid wastes. His neck only shows white when the feathers are blown the wrong way, since only the basal half of each neck feather is white. A person tramping across the wastes is frequently startled by the harsh croak of this black fellow. You will find him peering out from scrubby bushes, seemingly inquiring: "Brother are you lost; what are you doing here?"

Trouping across the brush-covered flats are the flocks of pale-colored Desert Horned Larks; and during the winter, the smaller groups of Mountain and Chestnut-backed Bluebirds, the light reflected from their blue backs and wings contrasting sharply with the drab background.

The wrens, are among the happiest little songsters of the arid regions. However bleak the area, the little Rock Wrens may suddenly appear among the rocks, giving their tinkling song as they frequently come close to you in a friendly manner, their grayish backs and lightly streaked breasts blending well with the drab background of their homes. The Canyon Wren is typical of the country for which it named. With its ringing song tripping rapidly down the scale, this bird is worth going miles to hear and see. Cactus Wrens are the most un-wrenlike of the wrens. Their large size and dark color; their grating, rather monotonous call, have little to suggest their relationship to the other two. The ball-like enclosed nest of grass is usually seen in the yuccas or cane cactus. These birds either build new, or repair old nests, for winter roasts.

Sparrows are the most numerous but least known of the birds of this section. Western Chipping and Field Sparrows, Vesper, and White-crowned Sparrows, are common in the winter. Sage Sparrows, Desert Sparrows, Shufeldt Juncos, Mountain Song Sparrows and the rarer Rock Sparrows are seen during most of the year; the western Lark Sparrow, in late spring and summer. The tame and noisy Canyon Towhee appears more like a big brown sparrow, while the shy but beautiful Spurred Towhee is much like the Towhee or Chewink of the east. Both are common all year.

Arizona Pyrrhuloxias are frequently seen in the low, mesquite country. Similar in size and shape to the Cardinal, or redbird, they are clad in gray with a rose red tinge to face, crest, and throat, and underside of wings. They achieve a charm that the cardinals lack.

The Say Phoebe is the most industrious and versatile of the desert birds. He nests about every cattle ranch and camp, cave or cliff of the southwest, and to the Arctic circle as well. Year after year there has been at least one pair nesting in the entrance to the Carlsbad Caverns. Nearby is the handsome Black Phoebe, showing more preference in his choice of nesting site, as he usually stays near water.

The White-throated Swifts are other dwellers of the cliffs and canyons. They nest in the crevasses of the canyon walls or back at the farthest limit of daylight in the many caves. Preferring the companionship of large numbers of their kind, they circle and dart with arrow-like speed.

The White-rumped Shrike frequents the flats and the sandhill country, where he is usually perched on some crooked bush or mesquite clump, watching for a passing insect. Generally solitary except during nesting season, he is frequently far from water.

The brilliant repertoire of the Western Mockingbird comes from the cottonwoods by the river, the juniper covered hillsides or the higher ridges. He sings as if he is trying his best to out-do his nearest rival, the Sage Thrasher. Both are addicted to night-singing. Songs of the Curve-billed and Crissal Thrashers are less frequent. The birds are common in their respective types of habitat, the curve-billed, in the cactus, yucca and thornbush covered flats, canyons or ridges; while the Crissal prefers the rocky, juniper-covered sides of canyons.

Least in size of all the dwellers of the region are the tiny Black-chinned Hummingbirds. It is a great suprise to the visitors to see these little mites fussing and fighting with others of their kind about the mescal and cactus blossoms near the entrance to the caverns. They are usually seen from early April to October. I have never been able to locate their nests.

There are other birds, not as common perhaps, but just as interesting, found in the same areas. To include all of them would require too much space. For that reason the many birds that live near the running streams and permanent bodies of water were also omitted from this list. Birds anywhere are interesting, but the desert birds living under the conditions that they do, are even more so.

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Date: 17-Nov-2005