Denizens Of The Desert:
Desert Bighorn And Near Relatives
Battle Of The Reptiles
Latrodectus, The Poisonous
Le Conte Thrasher
Gnatcatchers And Verdins
Desert White–crowned Sparrow
Read More Articles About: Denizens Of The Desert
Gnatcatchers And Verdins
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
(Polioptila plumbea and Auriparus flaviceps)
THE plumbeous (lead-colored) gnatcatchers, though not the smallest of the desert bird pygmies, are surely its noisiest scolders. Their raspish song, anything but musical, is uttered with such frequency and in such a determined and defiant tone that it always sounds as if these midget birds were berating and throwing challenges to everybody in the neighborhood.
With never a minute for idleness they go working their way from bush to bush, turning this way and that, their restless tails all the time wagging in unison with their fidgety bodies. They hunt in pairs; one, generally the male, takes the lead and the other follows close by. As they move rapidly about, scolding and chattering and scanning the bushes for insect eggs, small caterpillars, and beetles, they re-mind us of those talkative and active mountain birds, the chickadees, except in that they are not quite so adept as the chickadees at turning upside down on the branches. Evidently they always have a great deal to talk over among themselves about the adventures of the day, for they are never still a minute. I have known them to utter four different notes in half as many minutes, each with its peculiar variations and distinct individuality and doubtless the expression of strong emotional states.
This afternoon, while walking under a large palo verde tree, I found a gnatcatcher cleaning mites from his feathered coat. judged by his motions, he had plenty of them. With a bewildering rapidity of movement, he spread his wings outward and backward and brushed them over the top of his tail, and then bill-scratched his breast and underparts. Hardly had he begun this before he was scratching his neck and head parts with his feet. This billing and scratching and brushing were kept up fully fifteen minutes with scarcely a minute for rest. So much occupied was his mind with his task that he barely noticed my presence at all.
It is always interesting to catch birds at such odd times when they are doing little things like this, for one then gets a peep into a side of their lives which helps much in interpreting their reap nature. This little fellow's problem was very real to him, as was shown by the vigor with which he attacked its solving. A sparrow having the same difficulties would doubtless have taken care of them in quite a different manner.
The plumbeous gnatcatchers have a geographical range that is very definitely defined. They are found more or less all the year through-out the deserts of southeastern California, but particularly in the Lower Sonoran Life-Zone of the Colorado Desert as far west as the San Gorgonio Pass region, where they are displaced by the western and black-tailed gnatcatchers. The plumbeous gnatcatchers are very jealous of the territory which Nature has allotted them, and with zeal they guard it against all encroachments on the part of the western and black-tailed species. Occasionally one will see a pair of black-tails on plumbeous territory, but the trespassers are few, for they receive rough handling and are hustled out of the region in a hurry. This is especially true at nesting-time. Both species of gnatcatchers are good scrappers, and it is always an exciting time when they meet at the cross-trails and settle their disputes in beaky arguments. They are always noisy birds, but at such times a pandemonium of screechy, quarrelsome bird notes is set loose upon the air. The plumbeous is generally the aggressor and he drives out his rival at any cost of feathers.
This pugnaciousness of the plumbeous gnat-catcher is manifest toward all birds when the occasion arises to protect his rights. Woe be to the bird, even though he be a large one, that shows himself too familiar and aggressive a visitor in the mesquite and cat's-claw bushes where the plumbeous gnatcatchers have built their nest.
There is another tiny bird, the verdin, which lives in the same region and which is of the same small size, nervous temperament, and restlessness as the gnatcatcher. There are good chances that the novice will confuse the two birds unless some attention is given to learning the field marks which distinguish them. Both are birds with grayish or lead-colored backs and fluffy, lighter underparts. The male verdins, with their bright olive-green crowns and yellow heads, need never be mistaken for any dull-colored gnatcatcher; but the female verdin is not so easily distinguished. The yellow and green of her coat is restricted to two small patches, one on the head and one on the neck just beneath the bill, and the colors are almost always of so dull a hue as to be hardly seen when the bird is in motion.
A good time to become familiar with the verdins is during the breeding-season; for you will then learn to associate them with the large retort-shaped nests which they place in the wild lavender, mesquite, and other thorny bushes, and you will see both male and female together, making it possible to compare their markings. Without making any protest or appearing much disturbed, the birds will let you sit for hours under the nest while they come and go about their business.
The nests are always easy to locate, for they are large and conspicuous. Those that I have found on the Colorado Desert were almost always located in the upper crotches of the desert lavender bushes which grow so plentifully along the gravelly washes and in the cañon bottoms. On the Mohave Desert, where the Hyptis (the correct name for the so-called wild lavender) does not grow so plentifully, the nests are placed in the mesquite and cat's-claw bushes. There are generally two nests built very close together or in the same bush. This pairing of nests is easy to account for when we learn that the verdins, like the cañon wrens, build roosting- as well as breeding-nests. The larger nest is the one built and occupied by the female for nesting-purposes, while the smaller is built by the male and is for his sole use as sleeping-quarters. After the young have been reared, the female uses her nest for the same purpose. If you have any doubt concerning the occupancy of the nests at night, just gently thrust your finger into the hole at the end of the bird-home some evening or early morning, and feel what a peck you will get from the tiny bird tenant inside.
The verdins' appreciation of economy has induced them whenever possible to utilize the material of old nests in the reconstruction of new ones. Last winter I took down an unoccupied nest of the season and placed it up under the eaves of my house where it served as a decorative feature. When spring came the verdins (evidently the same pair that had built it in the spring of the year before) spied it out and proceeded without my permission to tear it to pieces bit by bit and make it into a new home for themselves. As though it were a kind of protest against my ever having removed it from its old place in the lavender bush, they took every twig of it back there and made the nest in the same branch from which I had taken it. When this nest was done, it was almost as big as my head. So many feathers and leaves were put inside for lining that one would have thought there would have been no room for anything else; indeed, so many feathers were protruding from the small opening at the end that the fat nest looked as if it were going to burst. If any baby birds that after-wards occupied it were not comfortable, it was because they had crowded quarters and not because their bed was not soft enough.
When I came back to the desert in the autumn I found these same birds still holding possession of this nest and the roosting-nest built beside it soon after. They were then getting ready for winter and were thoroughly renovating and relining their old domiciles of spring. Frequent trips were made to a gully several hundred yards away, and there from some source - I venture to say from some old nest great numbers of feathers. and sticks were secured. By utilizing old material the birds were able to save themselves much labor and were able to reconstruct the nests in a remarkably short time. As far as I could see, the remade nests looked as good as the new ones made from fresh materials in the spring season.
Generally but one bird was about working at a time. When bringing in material the female verdin always hesitatingly paused a moment underneath a twig just beneath the nest before going inside. Having gone in and fixed in its proper place the stick or feather she had se-cured, she flew to a twig which was near by and spent a second or two boasting of her accomplishment in chippering song.