Birding Column: A Walk In Tucson's Desert Aviary

May 11, 2004

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is situated on a hillside overlooking the Sonoran Desert just south of downtown Tucson. It is a "living" museum, with outdoor trails and exhibits built into the natural terrain.

When I was there in late March of 2002, the hummingbird aviary was closed (a bunch of hummingbirds had died recently from iron storage disease). But this was a blessing of sorts, because it gave me a lot of extra time in the outdoor aviary that houses about 40 species of southwestern birds at all times.

The "walk-in aviary" is about the size of a football field, and it is completely enclosed by a green wire mesh that keeps some of the harsh sunlight out but lets the elements in.

For the better part of three hours, I had the run of the place, and I took a good number of photographs of extreme southwestern species such as the Inca dove, hooded oriole, pyrrhuloxia, and Gambel's quail; along with some birds that have wider ranges but still spend a lot of time in the Southwest, such as the yellow-headed blackbird, cinnamon teal, and black-necked stilt.

It was a joy to get close to these species that I would otherwise have to search out in the wild. And in the case of the female hooded oriole, I got much closer to this individual than I would even dream of in my own yard back in Bel Air, California.

After I finished with the aviary, I walked through the cactus garden and saw a female house sparrow peering out at me from a nest hole high up in one of the cactuses. Then I saw a female Costa's Hummingbird nectaring at a patch of wildflowers. Next I headed over to an area where each species of bird had its own cage. Here, I got a great view of an elf owl and marveled at the way its plumage blended in with the tree trunk behind him.

Finally, I spent a few minutes watching endangered thick-billed parrots in their own cage. There were two adults and a juvenile hopping around in the enclosure, and they all made a bunch of high-pitched screeching sounds. But look at the metallic, green color of this bird's feathers, and that bright yellow eye staring back at you. If you looked as stunning as that, you'd have the right to screech around as much as you wanted to as well.

On the way out to my car at the end of the day, I saw a patch of yellow in a tree by the parking area. It was the head of a verdin, an extreme southwestern species that hops around in the trees, searching for insects to eat.

With that, I concluded my day at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. All I can say is, that's one heck of a bird garden!

More Than Just Birds

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum features more than just birds. It has more than 300 animal species and 1,200 types of plants. You can walk on over two miles (three kilometers) of paths and across 21 acres (8.5 hectares) in this desert gem.

But while I enjoyed seeing the mountain lion, Mexican wolf, and desert box turtle at the museum, I was also able to get a close-up view of an American kestrel that was perched on the leather glove of a naturalist; and to meet with a docent who was stationed behind a table that featured display cases of a bird skeleton, bird nests, bird eggs, bird wings, bird feet, and bird skulls, along with loose bird wings and feathers that you could pick up and observe on your own.

Continued on Next Page >>


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