I am sitting in my sister and brother-in-law’s living room in Tucson watching the birds. The south-facing wall is almost all glass, and faces a walled courtyard filled with trees and bird feeders. Most of the trees are sparse because it is winter, and some, like the mesquite, are desert plants with small leaves anyway. It makes it easy to see the birds that gather in it, some of which I can identify from my years here: the red-chested house finch, whose name always struck me as too plan for such a pretty bird, its yellow cousin the goldfinches, the mourning doves whose heads are too small for their bodies. There are also a variety of sparrows, hummingbirds, a Gila woodpecker rocking the hummingbird feeder to slosh the liquid so it can get at it, some Gambel’s quail (blue-ish, so prettier than many varieties, with a distinct hanging topknot) who manage to get far enough off the ground to walk on top of the wall and access the feeder from the mesquite branch that serves as a bridge, and the occasional phainopepla, pyrroluxia, or cardinal (Tucson is one of the few areas that have both cardinals and pyrroluxia).
In contrast to the stark mesquite, there is a mock orange tree in the corner, lushly covered in dark green leaves and gaudily decorated with the oranges. Mock oranges survive well in the desert, and are often used as ornamentals. When I lived here there was a real orange tree in my backyard, planted in a raised bed built from bricks about two feet high. The first year, there were no fruits, so we watered it the second year. To our pleasure a number of real, tasty oranges were produced. The third year saw a profusion of small green oranges promising a bumper crop. Until, one day, my four year old son and his buddy appeared at the back door, all four of their hands proudly full of the small green fruits they had picked. It was just a little challenge to smile broadly and accept this gift with the enthusiasm with which it was offered, and to, in a really positive tone, suggest that next year it might be fun to let them grow even bigger before picking them! Of course, next year we were living in Chicago, and there were no orange trees of any variety.