Sunday, March 4, 2012

Tucson and the birds

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.

This particular mock orange, apparently, was planted by a previous owner who had plans to graft multiple different citrus branches so that the one tree could bear oranges, grapefruit, lemon and lime. It never happened, but it is lucky for the birds that it is there, for it offers cover when (presumably) a hawk is spotted. Suddenly the mesquite is almost bare of birds, a little while later the leaves of the orange tree flutter as dozens of birds leave its cover to resume their feeding. The danger is, momentarily, past, but is ever present. Yesterday we sighted a Cooper’s hawk skimming down the road in front of their house only a few feet off the ground, presumably searching for ground squirrels or other rodents rather than birds on that trip, but quite capable of feeding on smaller birds. Last week, my sister took a photo of a hawk sitting in her back yard, quietly munching a dove, and unperturbed by her presence as she approached close to get a good picture. I have chosen to not include it in respect of the squeamish, but have attached another of a hawk perched on a
fountain in front of the house in the same yard I am watching.

There is a loud harsh machine sound that comes from behind me to the left, in the vicinity of the fireplace. It lasts several seconds and then stops. I wonder what machinery out in that direction, toward the driveway, has briefly clicked on, and then off. It happens again, grating and definitely mechanical, and then again. It isn’t the furnace coming on and off, though it sounds a little like that; it is in the wrong direction and is too brief. Perhaps there is a water heater out there? In these climates they are often outside the house in a little shed, but it doesn’t sound like one. Is there something a trash pickup truck might do that could make such a noise? It happens once more and then it is gone. Another mystery.

Until, just a few minutes later, my sister appears in her bathrobe (did I mention it was early morning?)
I ask her and she tells me that it is the Gila woodpecker trying to feed from the metal chimney. She notes it frequently alarms visitors. Ah. I note that it is not in the front yard any more. Mystery solved. Except the one about why the woodpecker has not yet figured out that there are no grubs to be had from the chimney. Better it should keep rocking the hummingbird feeder to slosh up the sugar water!

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