Bureau of Land Management
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is an oasis in the desert. Its deep sandstone canyons provide a perennial water supply, cool temperatures and a wide variety of vegetation which serves as ideal habitat for many birds species. In fact, more than 100 bird species have been identified within Red Rock Canyon.
Many birds exhibit specific behavioral traits which allow them to survive in arid lands.
Eagles and hawks conserve water by soaring in high altitude air currents where strong winds allow them to stay aloft with little exertion and temperatures can be 20 degrees cooler than at ground level. Obtaining water is no problem for these birds; their water needs are satisfied by eating the moisture-rich flesh of small animals. The dark silhouettes of the red-tailed hawk, Cooper’s hawk, golden eagle and other raptors can be seen against the blue sky.
Some birds have learned to use desert plants, especially those of the cactus family, for protection of captured prey.
The loggerhead shrike, though a predatory bird, has weak feet and is unable to hold struggling prey in its grasp. To immobilize prey, the shrike will often impale it on cactus spines. It will eat the prey immediately or allow it to sun dry for later consumption.
The cactus wren, identified by its down turned bill, heavily streaked body and fan shaped tail, uses the spiny branches of the cholla cactus to protect its nests. The nests, which resemble a football, are built from desert plant stems and flower stalks. Up to 10 nests may be built by one pair of cactus wrens, but only one will be used to raise young. The unoccupied nests may serve to confuse and frustrate predators not hampered by cholla spines. The cactus wren does not wander far from its nests, rather it hunts succulent spiders, insects and larvae in the nearby vicinity.
A few birds have not only adapted behaviorally, but also have special body modifications to meet the demands of desert life.
One such bird is the roadrunner. This desert member of the cuckoo family is a large bird about the size of a chicken. It is heavily streaked, has a bristle tipped crest and a long tail. It is most easily identified, however, by its habit of streaking across the desert on foot, much like the roadrunner cartoon character. It rarely flies, but will make short, hopping flights to escape danger or aid in the capture of lizards, snakes, ground squirrels and insects. These prey have a high percentage of body moisture which satisfies the roadrunner’s need for water. The roadrunner pants to keep cool and voids excess blood salts through special nasal glands similar to those found in marine birds. Watch for this lively bird throughout the 13-Mile Scenic Drive.
Many birds found in the Red Rock Canyon have no special behavioral or body adaptations. Only the presence of water in perennial streams or potholes after rains allows them to survive in this area. Such birds include the rufous-sided towhee, mourning dove, whie-throated swift, chukar and Gambel’s quail.
The rufous-sided towhee is usually seen in oak tree and shrub vegetation near water. Its red sides, dark head and black and white underbelly identify this bird. It has a strong bill for crushing seeds, but it will also eat insects and berries.
The mourning dove, recognized by its plump, brown body and wedge shaped tail, needs daily drinking water in order to survive. It arrives in red Rock during the spring months and constructs flimsy nests on shrubs or the branches of the cholla cactus within one mile of water. These nests often fall apart during high winds or stormy weather, killing the young. However, the high reproductive rate of these birds allows a few nests to be lost without much harm to the overall productivity of the breeding pair. The parents feed their young a white liquid produced in their crop; the liquid is so rich in protein that young can fly in 10 days. Some young doves have left the nest within one month. The parents will then begin a new nest. Adult morning doves may raise up to six separate groups of young per breeding season in this manner. Watch for this bird as it flies to and from water sources throughout Red Rock Canyon.
The white-throated swift is a small bird with long narrow, stiff wings and a short tail. It can be distinguished from other swifts by the contrasting black and white pattern on its underside. Its small size and pointed wings grant it great speed and maneuverability that aid in the capture of insects. Swifts are frequently seen flying in steep canyons and over pools of water throughout the area.
Both chukar and Gambel’s quail need a supply of water to supplement the moisture they derive from the seeds they eat. Although in the same family, they prefer different habitats within the conservation area. The Gambel’s quail occurs in the desert thickets near washes, while the chukar prefers steep, rocky slopes where grasses are plentiful. Both rely on their feet for travel, but will make sustained flights in times of danger.
Many more bird species inhabit the Red Rock Canyon. Click here for a full list.