A Walk in the Park | Desert bighorn sheep can drink enough water to go several days without any.

Written by by LeMoyne Mercer. Posted in January

Last month, discussing the desert in bloom, I suggested that birds and wildlife were subjects for another day. Well, this is the day. It must be conceded that, if you want to see wildlife in huge numbers, you need to head to Yellowstone, not the desert. Still, there are plenty of interesting animals worthy of your attention.


Desert wildlife today is sometimes quite similar to its cousins in other parts of the country. Desert pronghorn, mule deer, and bighorn sheep, for example, just tend to be smaller than those up in Colorado, Wyoming, or Montana where food is more plentiful. This month many of us are quite aware of what happens when food is plentiful in November and December.

Desert animals have found several ways to adapt to their situation. Resting during the day, hunting at night. Learning from parents where the waterholes are. Finding ways to eat stuff that does not seem edible. Just as some animals hibernate in winter, some desert animals aestivate, or sleep during summer heat.

Although many animals try to avoid people, others take advantage of the opportunity to freeload. Shirley and I are accustomed to campground beggars—ground squirrels and chipmunks for example—that will hop right up on the picnic table looking to share our meal. Likewise, birds will swoop in looking for crumbs or an unguarded morsel. We have had roadrunners come to beg right at our feet. Beep! Beep! What’s for dinner? The roadrunners’ desert adaptations, besides begging, include long, featherless, scaly legs to better protect them from the heat of the ground.

Even animals that don’t take food directly will take advantage of human populations to supplement their diets in other ways. Coyotes have adapted to widely differing environments all over the country. They are now found with increasing frequency in urban locations. We talked with a fellow camper near Tucson who complained that her neighbor actually put out food for coyotes the way you might fill a bird feeder. Trouble is, coyotes might not be satisfied with just dog food or cat food and decide that the cat or dog itself would make an even better meal. Last fall, a pack of coyotes was spotted several times in our South Toledo neighborhood. Keep an eye on your small pets, people.

Another urbanized animal in the desert Southwest is the peccary, or javelina. (It looks like a wild pig but technically is not.) Javelinas have also learned to forage in town. They may not eat dog food, but they are glad to feed in gardens or irrigated lawns the way deer feast on your hostas. We heard a tourist ask a ranger where he could see some javelinas. “Go into Ajo,” said the ranger. “They’re all over the place.”

Still, most desert animals survive by using methods and adaptations that do not involve humans.

Though most owls perch and nest in trees, the burrowing owl lives in a hole in the ground where there is shelter from the heat of the day. Likewise, packrats have middens, or underground dens, with several chambers and entrances. The midden protects the rat not only from the heat but predators as well. Usually.

One day, Shirley called out to me, “LeMoyne, there’s a snake!”

“Well,” I thought, “of course there is. This is the desert.”

Other campers had heard her and soon a dozen of us gathered to see the gopher snake. Its survival techniques include looking a lot like a rattlesnake except that its head is tubular rather than flattish and triangular. If you get close enough, you can also see that the pupil of its eye is round rather than the oval slit that venomous snakes tend to have. We watched as the gopher snake found a packrat midden under a palo verde tree and entered it. A minute later, the rat popped out of a back door. We cheered the underdog—or under rat. But the rat went back down the hole. How dumb is that! But, wait. The rat emerged again a minute later with little rats hanging onto her back. How heroic is that!

Now, the gopher snake may have been looking for a meal, but it also may have just wanted to get out of the heat. Most cold blooded animals, like snakes and lizards, look for holes and crevices where they can rest during the heat of the day. That’s why hikers in the desert are routinely warned to be careful about where they put their hands when climbing through rocks.

Rattlesnakes hibernate in the winter because nights can be too cool for them even in the desert. When they emerge from their dens in March, you might expect them to be pretty hungry and go on a feeding frenzy. Can’t be done though. Consider what would happen if, say, a rattlesnake ate a packrat and then the weather turned cool again and stayed cool for several days. The snake’s metabolism would slow way down and that meal would just sit like a lump in its belly and begin to rot like a meal you ate at a greasy spoon. Tums or Rolaids probably wouldn’t be much help even if they could get the package open. Dinner could be deadly for the snake, so it is genetically programmed to eat only when the season is favorable.

Some desert birds build their nests in places that protect them from slithering predators. Cactus wrens and gila woodpeckers hollow out nests in saguaro cacti. They begin new nests well before eggs are laid because the moist inner trunks of saguaro need time to dry out. Some nests get used for several generations, of course.

Shirley and I kept watch over the nest of the curved-bill thrasher in a cholla cactus. The deep, conical nest was less than five feet off the ground, but it was well back among the thorns and a tangle of prickly branches. Eventually, we could just barely make out three bright blue eggs and then the chicks. Thorns may protect against predators, but there must also be some instinctive mechanism that keeps the young birds from getting stabbed by their home-security system.

Birds also have the advantage of flight, which not only enables them to escape predators, but also to move to a more favorable location. Soaring birds like the hawks, eagles, and vultures can cool down by riding the thermals to a much higher elevation. Some birds seek more comfortable environments by migrating. The phainopepla is a small, crested black bird. You would think its color would be a disadvantage because black absorbs heat, but the phainopepla just moves to the northern part of its range in summer. It’s a relatively short migration.

Hummingbirds, on the other hand, may migrate for thousands of miles. They live on flower nectar, which, obviously, is not available in places like Toledo in January. Hummers associate the color red with food, so we have been buzzed numerous times by birds attracted by the rear brake lights on the RV or plastic beverage cups. When you know the hummingbird is there, it is no big deal. When it suddenly goes BZZZZ right behind your ear, it can be a tad unnerving.

Gambel’s quails deal with the heat by getting out ahead of it. Their body temperature is 107°. Until the ambient temperature is higher than that, they can still dissipate heat. Another mechanism for dissipating heat is having big ears that can act as radiators. Mule deer and jackrabbits have much larger ears than the whitetail deer or cottontails that visit your garden.

Your chances of seeing desert wildlife are improved in the early and late cooler parts of the day. When on the lookout for animals, it also helps to know where they might go to find water. It need not be in some remote, backcountry location. At Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in southern Arizona, Bob the bobcat liked to visit the dripping outside faucet at the ranger’s residence. But Bob is shy and amazingly fast. Even when you know where to find him, it can be hard to get more than a quick glimpse. He zipped through our campsite so fast we didn’t know he was there until he was gone. Still, if you don’t insist on seeing a specific animal like Bob, your odds of seeing all kinds of wildlife can be improved by just taking a little walk in the park.❦


University of Toledo Medical Center