Cheryl and I spent the week over Thanksgiving with our son Gawain and his girlfriend Heather at their home in Tucson. We visited our favorite places, the Desert Museum, Saguaro East, Catalina State Park, Mt. Lemmon, Sweetwater Wetlands, various gardens and so on. At night they wined and dined us with wonderful meals at home and at various of the endless supply of first-class ethnic restaurants. In other words, it was our usual visit.
But at quiet times during the day I sat in the back yard and observed their bird feeders. We had just begun getting our own feeders up and running in Jonesboro, in the NE corner of Arkansas, some 1500 miles (nearly half a continent) away, and I found myself comparing the two. A garden with bird feeders is, after all, a specific kind of habitat with characteristic birds. Our feeders and theirs are, I suppose, in suburban gardens, theirs in the middle of a large but very green city in the southwest, ours on the outer edge of a small city in the mid south. I wasn't comparing them in terms of which was best or had the most species, but in terms of seeing how the fauna changes as you travel east to west. What I noticed was, the birds I saw in Tucson were not very different from ours: Essentially the same birds were present, but each species had shifted over one space.
Some birds were exactly the same. For instance, we had a daily flock of mourning doves, they had a daily flock of mourning doves. Occasionally a small flock of white-crowned sparrows came by both places, but not often, as the vegetation in both our gardens was too tall for their liking.
But, as I say, most of the species had shifted over to the nearest western version. For instance, American goldfinches are a major component of our feeder in Jonesboro. Here in Tucson, it was lesser goldfinches.
Because they are more towards the center of town than we are, they have an invasive introduced species we do not have in our garden, house sparrows.
Since we seldom see them, or look at them when we do see them, I had the novelty here of noticing what handsome little birds the males are. In Britain, where ours come from, they are a part of the natural fauna, and for unknown reasons they (along with starlings) are slowly disappearing. We may one day be in a position to reintroduce them to Britain from our unwanted stocks.
Filling this bird's position back in Jonesboro, we have an invasive introduced species of our own, the house finch. When we moved to Jonesboro in the mid 70's, the very first house finches were appearing in Arkansas. I think we may actually have driven into town once to get a glimpse of one. Now they are numerous. The story we all hear is that a pet shop in New York had brought some out from the west coast to sell as cage birds, and a few had escaped, and from that tiny beginning began spreading west. They have since joined back up with the original west coast birds somewhere in the middle. The house finches in Tucson are not introduced but were there all along, no doubt nesting around the dwellings of the paleo-indians adding color and cheerful songs to their lives. They are the commonest birds at the Tucson feeder, and I fancied these "real" birds looked different from ours in Jonesboro, though I don't know in precisely what way. Something subtle in the color perhaps.
Our brightly colored and patterned eastern towhee was replaced in this garden by Abert's towhee, a bird that ran along the ground like a mouse, staying in the shadows. It's an elegant bird, but like so many birds that are western versions of their eastern counterparts, the colors and patterns are subdued to be more in keeping with desert colors.
A bigger more dramatic bird also racing about mostly in the shadows, the curve-billed thrasher is the desert-colored version of our richly colored and patterned brown thrasher. It would bound up on the feeding table with its muscular body, glare around with its fiery eye, then grasp a peanut and dive back into the tangle of palms and cactus at the back of the yard.
Our noisy red-bellied woodpecker, which comes to suet cakes and (awkwardly) to our hummingbird feeder, is replaced here by the closely related and even more noisy gila woodpecker. The gila sweeps in for a peanut and is gone too quickly to be able to get a decent picture of.
Instead of the ruby-throated hummingbird that comes to our feeder, in Tucson it is the Anna's.
At our home in Jonesboro in winter the tiny tame ruby-crowned kinglet is constantly flitting around the garden searching along every branch or under every leaf for tiny bits of protein. In Tucson filling the same niche was the tiny tame verdin.
And just as at our feeder, in Tucson a heavy presence hangs over the scene. Every time a bird picks up a seed it stops to look all around before looking down for the next seed. At the least movement of a limb, at the sudden shadow of a large bird, all the birds are up with an audible rush of wings. Scarcely a full minute goes by without that rushing sound. The cooper's hawk is a common nesting bird in Tucson (as it is becoming in Jonesboro), and their visits came at least once a day. The birds dive into the thicket, the hawk dives in right behind them, and the success rate is high.
But minutes later the surviving birds are back feeding again. I sometimes think, how can the birds lead a normal life knowing that if they go even ten seconds without looking around they could be violently killed? Why aren't they entirely stressed out? How can they eat, court, feed young birds? But sometimes someone can come up with an analogy which makes these impossible to conceive of questions suddenly comprehensible. My favorite example is the person who said the movement of tectonic plates is making the Atlantic Ocean spread "at the speed that fingernails grow." My wife came up with one of these analogies. When I said, What must it be like to live when you can't ever relax your attention for more than a few seconds? she said, "It would be like driving."
I thought about that, making the long drive back to Jonesboro, snacking, drinking coffee, talking, listening to music, marveling at the scenery, at the same time that multi-thousand pound semis hurtled by us inches away at eighty miles an hour.