Cactus may seem rather prickly and unfriendly, but many creatures that live in the desert, including birds, rely on them for food and shelter. In this article we will take a look at 13 birds that spend at least part of the year in these desert areas, and are cactus eaters or cactus dwellers.
13 Cactus Loving Birds
Cactus nesting is a great strategy for protection, surrounding yourself with thorns to keep away unwanted predators. And in some of these areas where tall trees are few and far between, sometimes the tall cactus are the only option. Even a few woodpeckers have adapted to this landscape, swapping their typical trees for large cactus. Cacti can provide a lot of food as well, between it’s seeds, pollen, flower nectar and fruit. In a dry landscape, cactus fruit is also an important source of water. Let’s take a look at 13 birds that call cactus land their home.
1. Cactus Wren
Scientific Name: Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus
Cactus wrens are a bird species found in the southwestern United States, ranging from California to Texas and Mexico. This bird is found in arid deserts with plenty of cactus and spiny plants. The plumage of cactus wrens is grayish-brown with white stripes on the eye and a dark crown. They’re also the largest wrens in the United States, measuring up to 9 inches in length and 11 inches in wingspan.
In addition to living in arid deserts and surviving in hot climates, this bird builds nests in thorny trees. Their nests are shaped like a football with a tunnel entrance, and they like to build in cholla, palo verde, mesquite and other desert plants where the nest is surrounded by protective thorns. They will even use these nests when not breeding as a roosting spot. Cactus wrens mainly eat insects they pick from vegetation, but also like cactus fruit.
2. Costa’s Hummingbird
Scientific Name: Calypte costae
Costa’s hummingbird is a small bird native to Mexico and western America. This hummingbird is the second smallest species of hummingbird in North America, measuring only 3.5 inches long with a wingspan of 4.3 inches. They can be found in various desert-like habitats, preferably those with Joshua trees and cholla cacti.
These hummingbirds primarily feed on nectar from flowers, including saguaro cactus nectar. Costa’s hummingbirds are also solitary birds that’ll migrate if the weather becomes too hot. These birds are among the most important pollinators of cacti in the desert.
3. Gila Woodpecker
Scientific Name: Melanerpes uropygialis
The gila woodpecker is a woodpecker species found in the deserts of California, Nevada, southern Arizona, New Mexico and northwestern Mexico. The habitat of this woodpecker is characterized by arid or semi-arid climates with little rainfall throughout the year. These woodpeckers are known to build their nests in cacti, particularly the saguaro cactus.
They peck at the cactus exterior with their long, powerful beak, and excavate a cavity nearly a food deep in cacti where they can rest and raise their young. Gila woodpeckers have been seen eating insects like grasshoppers, beetles, flies, and spiders, as well as cactus fruits and berries.
4. Gambel’s Quail
Scientific Name: Callipepla gambelii
Gambel’s quail is a ground bird found in the southwestern United States, most notably in Arizona. You can find it in desert grasslands with cactus, desert hackberry, mesquites, and scrub oak. They’re 9.8 inches long and have wingspans of 14.2 inches. These birds have round bodies with dark, comma-shaped plumes that stick up from their forehead. Males are more colorful with a chestnut cap, while females are mainly dusty brown.
To protect their eggs from predators, they usually nest on the ground beneath a shrub or in a patch of cactus. You often seen these quails foraging together in small groups called coveys. Not only do these quails sometimes nest in cactus patches for protection, they also eat cactus seed and fruits as a big part of their diet.
5. Gilded Flicker
Scientific Name: Colaptes chrysoides
Gilded flickers are a species of woodpecker found in the Sonoran desert. They stretch from Northern Mexico to Southern California and all the way to Arizona. These species are distinguished by their warm grayish-brown backs and spotted underparts.
Like the gila woodpecker, they make holes in saguaro cacti to build their nests, usually on the top side of the plant. Gilded flickers can also be seen perching on the Mexican giant Cardon cactus and foraging on the ground. Insects like ants are the primary food source for gilded flickers, though they’ll occasionally eat fruits and seeds in the winter.
6. Western Screech-owls
Scientific Name: Otus kennicottii
Western screech-owls can be found throughout western North America from Mexico all the way to southern Alaska. This includes hot desert areas of the south-west where they have adapted to live in areas where trees aren’t plentiful, but cacti area.
In forested areas, these small screech-owls usually re-use old woodpecker cavities for nesting. This remains true in desert habitats, where they will nest in abandoned woodpecker holes in giant cacti made by gila’s and gilded flickers. They are called “sit and wait” predators, since they quietly perch while looking for food, then swoop down when something is spotted. Small mammals such as mice, shrews, kangaroo rats and bats are typical prey.
7. Curve-Billed Thrasher
Scientific Name: Toxostoma curvirostre
The curve-billed thrasher is a brownish-gray bird found in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Mexico. They’re commonly found in areas with cholla cactus, mesquite, or palo verde. In the morning they perch on top of cacti and bushes, surveying their territory. As it gets hotter into the afternoon hours, they will move down to the ground in the shade of these plants. Some people describe their “whit-wheeet” call as sounding like someone whistling for a taxi.
This thrasher is named after its long, curved bill, which is used to grasp food such as insects, cacti seeds, fruits, agave flowers and berries. These birds usually build their nests in cholla cacti, gathering twigs to build them on the plant’s upper arms. This is where they lay their two to four light blue eggs, which hatch after 12 to 15 days.
8. Boucard’s Wren
Scientific Name: Campylorhynchus jocosus
The Boucard’s wren is a large wren native to only southwest Mexico. Their preferred habitat is thorn forests and cactus scrub. They forage for insects and cactus seeds on all parts of bushes, trees and plants, but don’t often forage directly on the ground. These wrens have dome-shaped nests that they sometimes build in the bend of a cactus.
The male has a reddish-brown back with black and white spots, a chocolate crown, and white underparts with black spots. Females have smaller spots on their underparts than males. In their natural habitats, you’ll also hear both males and females singing in a duet.
9. Greater Roadrunner
Scientific Name: Geococcyx californianus
The Greater Roadrunner is a bird that lives in the southwestern United States and Mexico. They’re usually found in semi-arid areas with open grass and scattered brush. A good sized bird, Greater Roadrunners have a wingspan of about 2 feet and a length of about 2 feet. They nest on the ground, hidden beneath thick bushes or cactus.
These birds are fast runners, and they prefer to run or walk more than to fly. As they run they flatten their bodies almost parallel to thee ground, and use their long tail to help them steer and turn. Their diet includes snakes, lizards, small birds and small mammals like mice. They are known for their ability to eat poisonous prey such as scorpions and venomous lizards. Two roadrunners have been observed working together to kill rattlesnakes!
10. Harris’s Hawk
Scientific Name: Parabuteo unicinctus
The Harris’s hawk main range includes areas of Mexico and South America, but they can also be found in desert areas of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Their plumage is a mix of chocolate and rusty browns, with yellow legs and a large white patch at the top of the tail. They are considered the most social of North Americas raptors, working together in groups to hunt more successfully.
They nest on any tall structure, and this includes the large saguaro cactus. Even when not nesting on a cactus, they often use cactus pieces as part of their nest construction. Main prey species include rabbits, ground squirrels, quail and other birds, and reptiles.
11. White-Winged Dove
Scientific Name: Zenaida asiatica
The white-winged dove is a semi-tropical dove native to the southwestern United States and Mexico. Agricultural fields, desert scrub and cacti, brushlands, and woodlands are their common habitats. White-winged doves have brownish-gray feathers and resemble pigeons, with a long white stripe on their wing.
White-winged doves come up into the Sonoran desert to breed. Their main source of food during their breeding season is the nectar, pollen, fruit and seeds of the saguaro cactus. This is so important for their success that they time their migration and nesting to match the cactus’s fruiting schedule.
12. Elf Owl
Scientific Name: Micrathene whitneyi
The elf owl is considered the smallest raptor in the world, only measuring between 4.7-5.5 inches in length. Like some other small owls, they rely on old woodpecker cavities to use as nest sites. This includes nesting in cactus. They are only found in the United States during the summer, when they come to desert areas of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas to breed.
Elf owls remain hidden during the day, using the cavities to avoid heat and predators. Once it gets dark, they will emerge and hunt large insects that are active at night, such as moths and beetles. As it gets closer to winter and colder at night, there are less insects to hunt and these owls head south to Mexico.
13. Great Horned Owl
Scientific name: Bubo virginianus
The Great-Horned Owl is widespread across North America and even South America. They are able to adapt to many different types of habitat, including desert. These are probably one of the most recognizable owls in North America due to their large size, yellow eyes and “horns” which are tufts of feathers that stick up on either side of their head.
Great horned owls have a diverse diet, consisting of mammals, birds, reptiles, insects and fish. In the desert, they will hunt whatever they can find. They also have to get creative in areas where tall trees aren’t as plentiful, and will build their big stick nests on top of large, hearty cactus.