Meet Your Common Urban Birds
From the rarest migrant to the most common backyard finch, for most of us birds are the most colorful, charismatic and accessible part of nature. Tucson Audubon encourages anyone who has an interest in wild birds, we stand as the unique southeast Arizona outlet for information and expertise about wild birds. Whatever your bird interests, make us your “go to” organization. Our Nature Shop staff can answer all your questions about birds, binoculars and many other things. Start below by learning some of the most common species you can find in town or your own backyard! Then move on to our region’s “specialty birds” and riparian species.
Tucson is such a good place for birds that the most comprehensive urban bird count in the world—the Tucson Bird Count—was developed to study them. Nearly 100 volunteers count birds on an annual or quarterly basis at over 1,000 different locations around Tucson. Tucson’s bird diversity comes about because of our range of elevations, mild seasons, Sky Island mountains that link the Rockies to Mexico’s Sierra Madre, influences from Sonoran, Mojave, and Chihuahuan deserts, migratory flyways, and tropical areas south of the border. The huge number of bird enthusiasts and other wildlife watchers who live in, or visit, Arizona contribute a surprising annual “total economic impact” of $1.5 billion to Arizona’s economy. It doesn’t matter if you are buying some bird seed, a pricey spotting scope, or staying in a bed and breakfast on a trip—you are part of the action.
Vermilion Flycatcher – Tucson Audubon, Meet Your Mascot
In 1949, when twelve friends met to organize what was to become the Tucson Audubon Society, choosing a bird to represent the organization might have been on the agenda. We don’t know for certain, since little information about those early days is readily available. If not that night, though, it wasn’t long before a mascot/logo, iconic bird, was chosen to symbolize the group, its newsletter and mission; the strikingly beautiful Vermilion Flycatcher.
Cactus Wren – Arizona’s Audacious State Bird
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.
Common Birds in Tucson
Any hummingbird feeder in urban Tucson probably has a resident Anna’s Hummingbird defending it from all intruders. This beautiful and large hummer is a common sight in backyards across the city and the male’s striking rosy-pink flashing head plumage makes it a compelling reason to keep your feeders full of nectar. In the first half of the last century this bird’s breeding range was limited to southwestern California. As the century progressed parks were created and gardens were planted and the birds steadily expanded their range north into Oregon and east into southern Arizona. Some Anna’s Hummingbirds live in Tucson year-round but from December to May their numbers increase as birds come to urban Tucson to nest and take advantage of the abundant flowers and feeders our yards provide. This time of year you may also witness the spectacular courtship display of the male Anna’s Hummingbird right in your yard. The male flies to a high point above an available female and then dives straight down and suddenly pulls up right over her with an explosive popping sound (caused by air passing at just the right velocity over special feathers in the tail). It is an amazing thing to witness and happens all over Tucson all winter and early spring.
– Jennie MacFarland, IBA Conservation Biologist
The Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) is a common year-round resident in Tucson. This medium-sized hawk has a long tail and gray back, and adults have a salmon-colored breast (hawks in their first year of life have a white breast with brown streaks). Although common in Tucson, the Cooper’s Hawk is not especially conspicuous in January, unless you are lucky and have one visiting your yard to hunt for doves and other small birds. Cooper’s Hawks clearly know the yards where people feed birds, and take advantage of the concentration of prey. In February, the nesting cycle begins anew, and Cooper’s Hawks become easy to see, especially early in the morning, when both males and females participate in courtship flights and nest building activities. They also vocalize (kek-kek-kek-kek) regularly during this time of year. Cooper’s Hawks typically build their nests in relatively large trees (Eucalyptus or pine) and occupy many of the parks, golf courses, cemeteries, and apartment complexes throughout Tucson. Next time you are out birding, don’t forget to listen for their calls, and look on the ground under groves of large trees for piles of bird feathers, and streaks of “white-wash”—tell tale signs of their presence.
-Bill Mannan, Professor of Wildlife Ecology, University of Arizona, and specialist in urban raptors
I brake for quail. I just can’t resist stopping to watch the cartoonish meanderings of a troupe of Gambel’s Quail, scurrying across the road or poking around in the desert scrub. There is safety in numbers, and these gregarious birds will often travel in a large group called a covey. Sprinting away from threats (at speeds around 20 feet per second) is the preferred method of escape, though they can fly short distances.
Gambel’s Quail eat mostly seeds, and must drink water daily or get liquid from other foods like insects or succulent cactus fruits. Studies show that availability of fresh green foliage is the major limiting factor in quail reproductive success. The nest is a shallow bowl-shaped ground scrape bordered by small twigs, sparsely lined with leaves and feathers. The female usually lays ten to twelve eggs, which will hatch all on the same day after about three weeks. Prior to hatching, the chicks peep to each other from inside their eggs to synchronize!
While Gambel’s Quail is one of many “boom-and-bust” species, with populations fluctuating from year to year based on rainfall, the main factor in attracting these birds is habitat quality. Dense shrubs or trees provide shade and cover, native plants provide food, and maintaining a simple water feature can provide entertainment for you, too!
-Erin Olmstead, Development Manager
Gila Woodpecker is the woodpecker commonly seen in Tucson suburbs and parks. They are a rich, creamy brown with fine horizontal black and white bars on the back, wings and tail. Males have a small red patch on their heads. In the U.S. Gila Woodpecker is mostly seen in the southern half of Arizona, but its range extends down much of Baja California and the coastal plain of western Mexico.
Yes, this is the bird that drums annoyingly on your eaves and your evaporative cooler! Fortunately, it only lasts a short time in the spring when males are establishing and defending a nesting territory.
They are aggressive not only toward rival woodpeckers, but toward other birds as well. I once saw one mercilessly pecking a House Finch to death. It may have been preparing to eat the finch because Gilas have a diverse diet, including mostly insects but also fruit, eggs and sometimes other birds (mostly small nestlings).
Gila Woodpeckers are one of two species that make nest holes in saguaros (along with Gilded Flickers). Its old saguaro holes provide nests for many other bird species as well, from Ash-throated Flycatchers to Purple Martins.
Compared to more brightly colored birds, House Finches may seem plain, but this streaky brown finch has an exciting history that began right here in the arid American West. Their natural range included all the Southwest and they favored undisturbed desert, especially areas with stands of cholla cactus. In 1939 a few captive individuals were sold in a pet store in New York City and escaped. These House Finches flourished and spread rapidly. Originally a bird of hot deserts and dry open habitats of the southwest, it now occurs in nearly all types of landscapes and climates in North America, from edges of northern taiga to ocean coasts to metropolitan areas. What a success story! The extent and intensity of the male’s red plumage is related to the bird’s health, vigor and ability to forage, as they acquire these red pigments from foods they eat that contain carotenoids, such as berries.
In the deserts near Tucson you can see “wild” groups of House Finches far from any house singing their cheery, bubbling song. It is also fun to see their city-dwelling cousins around town, and they are one of the few birds that sing all through winter. A cold morning can be made bright by a group of bright red male House Finches sitting in a pine tree singing and looking just like feathered Christmas ornaments.
-Jennie MacFarland, IBA Conservation Biologist
There is nothing lesser about the sweet tune or striking and colorful wing patterns of a Lesser Goldfinch. These small finches, of the family Fringillidae, are a charm to find flocking in your backyard or local park.
Stephen H. Long’s expedition to the Rocky Mountains in 1819–20 collected the first known specimen of this species on the banks of the Arkansas River between Colorado Springs and Pueblo, Colorado. The Lesser Goldfinch name became official on the 5th edition of the AOU Check-List.
Did you know that the Lesser Goldfinch is an accomplished mimic? It is surpassed in North America in the number of species it can mimic in one song only by Lawrence’s Goldfinch. While this bird is the smallest of the American goldfinches, to sit and watch a treasury of Lesser Goldfinch congregate, communicate, and consume from feeders or flowers, is a much greater experience for any lover of birds than the name implies.
To enjoy Lesser Goldfinch in your urban yard, try planting seed bearing flowers or bushes (such as sunflowers, Desert Marigold or Clevlandii sage). Or, put up a nyjer feeder and water feature, and then enjoy the sights and sounds of this beautiful bird.
-Sara Pike, Operations Manager
This bird’s questioning “wurp?” call is a common sound in desert habitat in and around Tucson. With the male’s handsome glossy black plumage, flashing white wing patches and ragged crest this bird is often described as a ‘black cardinal with a red eye.’ The matte slate gray female is quite beautiful in a more understated way. In winter these birds aggregate in areas of high mistletoe concentration, fiercely defending clumps of native mistletoes in Palo Verde and Mesquite trees against other Phainopeplas, males and females holding their own feeding territories. The slim silhouette of this bird may seem a common sight in regions of Tucson with desert vegetation, but this bird has a complicated seasonal migration pattern that is still not fully understood by scientists. Phainopeplas may actually be one of the only birds in North America to nest first in one habitat and then again in another all in the same year. In the spring these birds nest in Sonoran Desert habitat, often in a tree that is hosting native mistletoe so a steady food supply is always within wing’s reach. When temperatures begin to rise in early summer, these birds gather in nearby riparian woodlands or higher elevation oak woodlands (such as Madera Canyon) and then raise another brood.
-Jennie MacFarland, IBA Conservation Biologist
Verdins are the prettiest birds most Tucsonans have never seen. They are small and gray, with cute yellow faces. Verdins are non-migratory, year-’round residents throughout their distribution. They prefer thorny desert scrub, especially mesquite, palo verde and acacias. Providing thorny native vegetation in Tucson landscapes will assure their little yellow faces will adorn your yard.
Highly desert-adapted, Verdins can derive all the water they need from what they eat. They eat mostly insects and spiders, sometimes holding leaves with their feet while searching them for prey. One study calculated they ate up to 540 insects, spiders or larvae per day during winter. When available, they also eat fruits, pulp from seed pods, flower nectar, or sugar water from hummingbird feeders.
Believe it or not, Verdin was once a nemesis for me. Living in central Mexico in the early ’90s—at the very south end of their range—I searched in vain. I found my first one in a mesquite thicket and almost immediately learned what they sound like, since they vocalize so frequently. From then on I saw (or at least heard) them quite often, and they have become one of my favorite avian friends.
After a long scorching Tucson summer, a welcome sign of the cooler weather to come is hearing the first White-crowned Sparrow sing in mid-September. Chances are good that this first sparrow is of the Rocky Mountain sub-species (oriantha) which are more likely to be seen in early fall on their way to Mexico for the winter. In Tucson, the more common gambelii sub-species arrives from the forests and tundra of Alaska and northwestern Canada a bit later to spend the winter here.
These birds are fairly common in Tucson, frequenting even small natural patches in the city. You can easily have White-crowned Sparrows in your own yard if there’s adequate vegetative protection and a good seed source for food. They are also easy to identify because you can stumble into a small flock and spend countless minutes studying the black-and-white striped crown of these large sparrows.
Songs of White-crowned Sparrows are among the most studied of any bird. Sub-species and sometimes breeding populations can be distinguished by their dialects. Some males along breeding borders are “bilingual,” singing the songs from both breeding populations. Soak up these songs now—before you know it, White-crowns will leave and the heat will return!
-Matt Griffiths, Communications and Restoration Specialist