Arizona’s Audacious State Bird, the Cactus Wren
By Bob Bowers
When the United States declared independence in 1776, choosing state birds was not high on the priority list. In fact, nearly 150 years passed before Kentucky stepped up and named the first state bird, on February 26, 1926. Not surprisingly, that first choice was the Northern Cardinal, one of the most recognizable, brightly colored and popular birds in the country. The cardinal was so popular that six other states (all clustered around and near Kentucky) selected the same bird. One would think that competitive and independent states would make a point of choosing unique birds, but one would be wrong. All 50 states now have official birds, but 30 of those states share their selection with at least one other state. Following the seven-state cardinal, six states chose the Western Meadowlark and five the Northern Mockingbird. Other birds shared by at least two states include the American Robin, American Goldfinch, Mountain Bluebird, Eastern Bluebird and Black- capped Chickadee. Playing copy-cat was hardly necessary, since there are plenty of appropriately unique choices among America’s birds. In addition, some of the omissions are as surprising as some of the choices. For example, while two states chose chickens, there are no hummingbirds or raptors on the list.
It should come as no surprise that Arizona is one of just twenty states that chose a unique state bird. After all, this is the state with an official tie (the bolo), an official rattlesnake (the Ridge-nosed) and an official gun, the Colt revolver. In 1931, nineteen years after becoming the 48th state, Arizona’s legislature chose the Cactus Wren. It’s probably not true that the choice was based on the bird’s song, a sputtering, staccato-chugging babble that might be compared with a state legislative session. That ‘song’, which David Sibley calls “unmusical….like a quacking duck”, is just one unique characteristic of the Cactus Wren. While the other eight North American wrens are small, drab, shy and furtive, the Cactus Wren stands alone. He is big, boldly patterned, boisterous, brash and inquisitive. At eight inches, he dwarfs our other wrens, and his bullying behavior is more like a thrasher than a wren. Appropriately, his scientific name is a 10-syllable mouthful, Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus, meaning ‘brown-capped curved bill’. The Cactus Wren builds multiple nests, most of which are never occupied, and, as you might guess, these nests typically are found in cactus. Here the bird perches, oblivious to the sharp spines, shattering the clear desert air with his staccato song. Limited in the U.S. to the southwest, the wren is widespread south to central Mexico, and a dozen generic cousins can be found from Mexico to Brazil. One of these, the Rufous-naped Wren, made me think I was back in Arizona as it snatched scraps from my table in Costa Rica.
Far from shy, the Cactus Wren carries a chip on his shoulder and is not one to mess with. They will destroy bird nests and eggs, including those of other Cactus Wrens. I’ve had my hat knocked off after getting too close to a Cactus Wren nest, and inexplicably another made a high speed landing in the center of my back. I also saw one peck a downed House Finch to death. Like Arizona retirees, they are mostly monogamous, adapt well to suburban desert neighborhoods ,and often growl when they meet their mates. This is a bird that, if it could, would sport a bolo tie and carry a Colt. Without question, this was a good choice for the wild west state of Arizona.
Bob Bowers is a birder and freelance writer specializing in nature and travel articles. He writes a monthly birding column for an Arizona newspaper, and lives with his wife, Prudy, in SaddleBrooke, in northwest Tucson. He writes a birding and travel blog, www.birdingthebrooke.com, and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org .