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Birds play important roles in the ecology of virtually every biological region on earth. Because of their ability to move around by flight and their division into a large number of ecological niches, most regions show great avian diversity. A checklist of birds of the El Paso-Juarez Border Region gives some indication of this, but is far from reflecting the total avian fauna of the Chihuahuan Desert. Somewhat more extensive information than shown in the checklist is available on the Centennial Museum's Chihuahuan Desert pages and in the Desert Diary pages on birds. However, somewhat less information on birds is given in those sources than on other vertebrates since birds are relatively well covered in the popular literature. Because of the size of the avifauna of the desert, it can be considered only superficially here; keep in mind that many taxa have not been listed nor commented on.

Birds are one of the best known major animal groups, having attracted the attention of naturalists early on because of their ubiquity and beauty. "Bird watching" by amateurs remains an avocation of literally millions of non-scientists. A fair proportion of these people contribute time, effort, and expertise to increasing knowledge of distribution, numbers, behavior, breeding habits, population fluctuations, migration patterns, etc., that end up as important sources of data for the professional ornithologists. A part of the value of these contributions relies on the relative ease of identification of birds compared to mammals or many of the invertebrate groups. Whereas few mammalogists would dare rely on data dependent on a non-professional person correctly identifying the species white-footed mice, for example, ornithologists regularly rely on identifications of all but the relatively few species easy to confuse. Much of the reason for this is that humans, like birds, are primarily visual creatures; thus we can utilize the same clues as the birds themselves do. Most mammals, on the other hand, rely far more heavily on olfaction—an area where we are virtually idiots. Perhaps as a result of so many amateurs, common names are used more often than in other groups of organisms.

The first five orders of birds as given on the classification page are strongly associated with water. These are the orders Gaviiformes (loons), Podicipediformes (grebes), Pelecaniforms (pelicans, cormorants, and relatives), Ciconiiformes (herons, storks, ibises, etc.) except the Carthartidae (vultures), and Anatidae (ducks, geese, and relatives). As such, these birds occur primarily where water is available. The permanent waterways and reservoirs are the main sites, but other permanent bodies of water are utilized, and temporary waters, such as playa lakes and irrigation drainage ditches, may be utilized by some.

The Cathartidae had long been considered to belong to the Falconiformes (diurnal birds of prey), but in recent years has come to be recognized that this placement is a matter of convergent evolution rather than a true relationship. The Black Vulture and the Turkey Vulture are common scavengers of much of the Chihuahuan Desert, though the Black Vulture tends to drop out of the northernmost part of the desert. The California Condor is known from the northern desert region from the latter portions of the Pleistocene Epoch, but there apparently is no historic record.

The Falconiformes, or diurnal (daytime) birds of prey, are major predators that include such forms as Bald and Golden eagles and falcons. The latter includes the Caracara, that does a considerable amount of scavenging, acting in some ways more like a vulture than a falcon. The Bald Eagle normally is found in the vicinity of major bodies of water, whereas the Golden Eagle is not so limited in its distribution. Most of the hawks migrate, so that numbers of kinds at any one place may fluctuate with the season.

The Galliformes include the various species of quail that inhabit the desert, as well as the Wild Turkey and the introduced Ring-necked Pheasant. These often are put together into the family Phasianidae, but the 7th edition of the AOU Check-list of North American Birds split out the quail as the family Odontophoridae.

The orders Gruiformes and Charadriiformes generally are associated with water. The former includes cranes, such as the Sandhill Crane and the Whooping Crane; rails and relatives also occur in the order. The Charadriiformes includes several families; all are associated with water. These include shorebirds and gulls. Although generally associated with rivers and ponds, temporary pools often are utilized and some members may regularly occur some distance from water.

The Columbiformes are the doves and pigeons. This very successful group is widespread within the desert habitats. Common species in the northern part of the Chihuahuan Desert include the Mourning Dove, the Inca Dove, and the White-winged Dove. The Rock Pigeon so common in urban areas throughout the United States is an import from the Old World. A cliff nester in its native habitat, it was preadapted for the buildings in cities. It is limited almost entirely to urban situations.

The parrots and relatives are in the order Psittaciformes. Thick-billed Parrots were found in the montane islands of southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico, but must be considered marginal to desert habitat; attempts to re-introduce them are underway. Populations occur in the Sierra Madre Occidental.

The Greater Roadrunner often is considered a typical desert bird, though it also occurs far beyond the desert habitats. It and cuckoos belong to the Cuculiformes: the cuckoo family.

The Goatsucker family (Caprimulgiformes) apparently is so-named because of the wide mouth, giving rise to the myth that these birds would steal milk from goats. Members include the nighthawks, Poor-will, and a whip-poor-will. Nighthawks and Poor-wills are widespread through the desert region. These are insectivorous birds capturing flying insects on the wing. In this, they are aided not only by the large mouth, but also by "whiskers" (rictal bristles) extending out from around the mouth, helping to scoop insects into the open mouth. They are predominantly active in the darkened skies around dawn and sunset.

Although the name Apodiformes means without feet, it really is not appropriate since both the swifts and the hummingbirds have perfectly formed, albeit small, legs and feet. The hummingbirds are particularly common throughout the desert region, both as summer residents and as migrants. These small birds feed on nectar, though insects also are taken to provide protein. The ability to hover while injesting nectar with the aid of a long tongue and beak is well known.

Kingfishers, order Coraciiformes, are limited strictly to waterways that provide their main diet of small fish.

The Piciformes (woodpeckers) is a very successful order that occurs throughout those portions of the Chihuahuan Desert that support large shrubs or trees. They are insectivores, though the sapsuckers also feed extensively on tree sap. The flickers are large woodpeckers that feed extensively on the ground, possibly making them vulnerable to predation and a reason they are one of the more common fossil birds in Southwestern deposits.


Last Update: 27 Jun 2006