10. WINGED LIFE


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CHAPTER X

WINGED LIFE


 The first day's walk.  

[page 174] THE desert's secrets of life and growth and death are not to be read at a glance. The first day's walk is usually a disappointment. You see little more than a desolate waste. The light of the blue sky, the subtle color of the air, the roll of the valleys, the heave of the mountains do not reveal themselves at once. The vegetation you think looks like a thin covering of dry sticks. And as for the animals, the birds—the living things on the desert—they are not apparent at all.

But the casual stroll does not bring you to the end of the desert's resources. You may perhaps walk for a whole day and see not a beast or a bird of any description. Yet they are here.

 Tracks in the sand.  

Even in the lava-beds where not even cactus will grow, and where to all appearance there is no life whatever, you may see tracks in the sand where quail and road-runners and linnets have been running about in search of food. There [page 175] are tracks, too, of the coyote and the wild cat—tracks following tracks. The animals and the birds belong to the desert or the neighboring mountains; but they are not always on view. You meet with them only in the early morning and evening when they are moving about. In the middle of the day they are in the shadow of bush or rock or lying in some cut bank or cave—keeping out of the direct rays of the sun.

 Scarcity of birds.  

The birds are not very numerous even when they come forth. They prefer places that afford better cover. And yet as you make a memorandum of each new bird you see you are surprised after a time to find how many are the varieties.


 Dangers of bird-life.  

And the surprise grows when you think of the dangers and hardships that continually harass bird-life here in the desert. It may be fancied perhaps that the bird is exempt from danger because he has wings to carry him out of the reach of the animals; but we forget that he has enemies of his own kind in the air. And if he avoids the hawks by day, how shall he

 No cover for protection.  

avoid the owls by night? Where at night shall he go for protection? There are no broad-leaved trees to offer a refuge—in fact few trees of any sort. The bushes are not so high that [page 176] a coyote cannot reach to their top at a jump; nor are the spines and ledges of rock in the mountains so steep that a wild cat cannot climb up them.

No; the bird is subject to the same dangers as the animals and the plants. Something is forever on his trail. He must always be on

 The food problem.  

guard. And the food problem, ever of vital interest to bird-life, bothers him just as much as it does the coyote. There is little for him to eat and nothing for him to drink; and hardly a resting-place for the sole of his foot. Besides, it would seem as though he should be affected

 The heat and drouth again.  

by the intense heat more than he is in reality. Humanity at times has difficulty in withstanding this heat, for though it is not suffocating, it parches the mouth and dries up the blood so rapidly that if water is not attainable the effect is soon apparent. The animals—that is, the wild ones—are not disturbed by it; but the domestic horse, dog, and cow yield to it almost as readily as a man. And men and animals are all of low-blood temperature—a man's normal temperature being about 98 F. But what of the bird in his coat of feathers which may add to or detract from his warmth? What is his normal temperature? It varies [page 177] with the species, so far as I can ascertain by experiment, from 112 to 120 F. Consider that blood temperature in connection with a surrounding air varying from 100 to 125 F.! It

 A bird's temperature.  

would seem impossible for any life to support it. One may well wonder what strange wings beat this glowing air, what bird-life lives in this fiery waste!

Yet the desert birds look not very different from their cousins of the woods and streams except that they are thinner, more subdued in color, somewhat more alert. They are very

 Innocent-looking birds with savage instincts.  

pretty, very innocent-looking birds. But we may be sure that living here in the desert, enduring its hardships and participating in its incessant struggle for life and for the species, they have just the same savage instincts as the plants and the animals. The sprightliness and the color may suggest harmlessness; but the eye, the beak, the claw are designed for destruction.

 The road-runner.  

The road-runner is one of the mildest-looking and most graceful birds of the desert, but the spring of the wild cat to crush down a rabbit is not more fierce than the snap of the bird's beak as he tosses a luckless lizard. He is the only thing on the desert that has the temerity to fight a rattlesnake. It is said that he kills the [page 178] snake, but as to that I am not able to give evidence.

And it is not alone the bird of prey—not alone the road-runners, the eagles, the vultures, the hawks, and the owls that are savage of mood. Every little wisp of energy that carries a bunch of feathers is endowed with the same spirit. The downward swoop of the cactus

 Wrens and fly-catchers.  

wren upon a butterfly and the snip of his little scissors bill, the dash after insects of the fly-catchers, vireos, swallows, bats, and whip-poor-wills are just as murderous in kind as the blow of the condor and the vice-like clutch of his talons as they sink into the back of a rabbit. Skill and strength in the chase are absolutely necessary in a desert where food is so scarce, and in proportion the little birds have these qualities in common with the great.


 Development of special characteristics.  

And naturally, as in the case of the animals, the skill and the strength develop along the line of the bird's needs, producing that quality of character, that fitness for the work cut out for him, to which we have so often referred. There are birds that belong almost solely to the kingdom of the air—birds like the condor, the vulture, and the eagle. Upon the ground they move awkwardly, not having better feet to [page 179] walk with than ducks and geese. The talons are too much developed for walking. When they rise from the ground they do it heavily

 Birds of the air.  

and with quick flapping wings. Not until they are fairly started in the upper air do they show what wonderful wing-power they possess.


 The brown-black vulture.  

The common brown-black vulture or turkey buzzard is the type of all the wheelers and sailers. The "soaring eagle" of poetry is something of a goose beside him. For the wings of the vulture bear him through wind, sun, and heat, hour after hour, without a pause. To see him circling as he hunts down a mountain range a hundred miles or more, one might think that the abnormal breast-muscles never grew weary. He goes over every foot of the ground with his eyes and at the same time watches every other vulture in the sky. Let one of his fellows stop circling and drop earthward on a long incline, and immediately he is followed by all the black crew. They know

 The vulture hunting.  

instantly that something has been discovered. But often the hunt is in vain, and then for whole days at a time those motionless wings bear their burden apparently without fatigue. With no food perhaps for a fortnight and [page 180] never any water, that spare rack of muscles sails the air with as little effort as floating thistle-down. No one knows just how it is done. In blow or calm, against the wind or

 The vulture sailing.  

with it, high in the blue or low over the ground, any place, anywhere, and under any circumstances those wings cut through the air almost like sunlight. You can hear a whizz like the flight of arrows as the bird passes close over your head; but you cannot see the slightest motion in the feathers.

The hot, thin air of the desert would seem a less favorable air for sailing than the moister atmosphere of the south; but the vulture of the tropics is not the equal of the desert bird.

 The southern buzzard.  

He is heavier, lazier, and more stupid—possibly because better fed. There are several varieties in the family, the chief variants being the one with white tipped wings and the one with a white eagle-like head. Neither of them is as good on the wing as the black species, though none of them is to be despised. Even the ordinary

 The crow.  

carrion crow of the desert is an expert sailer compared with any of the crow family to be found elsewhere. The exigencies of the situation seem to require wings developed for long-distance flights; and the vultures, the crows, [page 181] the eagles, the hawks, all respond after their individual fashions.


 The great condor.  

The condor is perhaps the vulture's peer in the matter of sailing. He belongs to the vulture family, though very much larger than any of its members, sometimes measuring eleven feet across the wings and weighing thirty pounds. He is the largest bird on the continent. At the present time he is occasionally seen wheeling high in air like a mere insect in the great blue dome. It is said that he soars as high as twenty-five thousand feet above the earth. But to-day he sails alone and his tribe has grown less year by year. With the eagles he keeps well up in the high sierras and builds a nest on the inaccessible peaks or along the steep escarpments. He belongs to the desert only because it is one of his hunting-grounds.


 The eagles and hawks.  

This may be said of the eagles and the hawks. They hunt the desert by day, but go home to the mountains at night. The owls are somewhat different, not being given to long flight. The deep caves or wind-worn recesses under mountain ledges furnish them abiding-places. These caves also send forth at dusk a full complement of bats that seem not different from the ordinary Eastern bats. The burrowing [page 182] owl is perhaps misnamed, though not misplaced.

 Bats and owls.  

There is no evidence whatever, that I have ever seen or heard, to show that he burrows. What happens is that he crawls into some hole that is already burrowed instead of a cave or recess in the rocks. A prairie dog or badger hole is his preference. That the place has inhabitants, including the tarantula and (it is said) the rattlesnake, does not bother the owl. He walks in with his mate and speedily makes himself at home. How the different families get on together can be imagined by one person as well as

 The burrowing owl.  

by another. They do not seem to pay any attention to each other so far as I have observed. Ordinarily the desert animals, birds, and reptiles agree to no such truce. They are at war from the start. I do not know that the owls, the bats, the night-hawks have any special equipment for carrying on their part of the war. Sometimes I have fancied they had larger eyes than is usual with their kinds outside of the desert; but I have no proof of this. Perhaps it is like the speculation as to whether the buzzard sees or scents the carrion that he discovers so readily—hardly amenable to proof.


 The ground-birds.  

All of the air-birds are strikingly developed in the wings and equally undeveloped in the [page 183] feet, while all the ground-birds of the desert are just the reverse of this—that is, deficient in wings but strong of foot and leg. The road-runner, or as he is sometimes called the chaparral-cock, is a notable instance of this. He is a lizard-eater, and in order to eat he must first catch his lizard. Now this is by no means an easy task. The ordinary gray, brown, or yellow lizard is the swiftest dodger and darter there is in the sand, and even in straight-line running he will travel too fast for an ordinary dog to catch him. His facility, too, in dashing

 The road-runner's swiftness.  

up, over, and under bowlders is not to be under-estimated. The road-runner's task then is not an easy one, and yet he seems to accomplish it easily. There is no great effort about his pursuit and yet he generally manages to catch the lizard. It is because his legs are specially constructed for running, and his head, neck, and beak for darting. His wings are of little use. When chased by a dog he will finally take to them, but only for about fifty yards. Then he drops to the ground and starts on foot again. He will run away from a man, and sometimes even a horse cannot keep up with him. Oddly enough, he seems always to run a little sideways. The long tail (used as a rudder) is carried [page 184] a little to the right or the left and gives this impression. When frightened, his top-knot is raised like that of the pheasant, and he often

 The vicious beak.  

runs with his beak open. It is a most vicious beak for all that it looks not more blood-thirsty than that of the crow. It snaps through a scorpion or a centipede like a pair of sheep-shearers. And with all his energy and strength the road-runner weighs only about a pound. He is a long-geared bird, but not actually any larger than a pigeon.


 The desert quail.  

The blue valley-quail—whether of Arizona or California breeding—is quite as strong of leg as the road-runner, though not perhaps so swift. He does not care much about using his wings; and at best they are not better than the rather poor average of quails' wings. By that I mean that all quails rise from cover with a great roar and bustle, and they fly very fast for a short distance; but they are soon down upon the ground, running and hiding. The flight of the quail, too, is straight ahead. It is not possible for him to rise up over five hundred feet of canyon wall, for instance, and even on an ordinary mountain side he takes several flights before

 Wings of the quail.  

he reaches the summit. The wings are not muscled like the legs, and that is because [page 185] the quail is a ground-bird. He gets his food there and spends most of his time there. In the East Bob White always sleeps upon the ground, but the desert quail is usually too clever to trust himself in such an exposed place.

 Travelling for water.  

He will travel miles to get into a cotton-wood tree at dusk, and if there is water near at hand so much the better. He dearly loves the water and the tree, but if he cannot get them he accepts the situation philosophically and goes to sleep on a high ledge of rock with water perhaps in his thought but not in his crop.

Thanks to his capacity for travelling, the quail usually manages to get enough of small seeds and insects to keep himself alive. He is a great roamer—in the course of a day travelling over many miles of country—and his quest is always food. He likes to be among the great bowlders that lie along the bases of the mountains; and when disturbed he flies and jumps from rock to rock, much to the discouragement of the coyote that happens to be the disturber. When forced to rise he flies perhaps for a hundred yards or more and then drops and begins

 Habits of quail.  

running. In the spring he mates, raises a brood, and teaches the young ones the gentle art of running. In the fall he and his family [page 186] of a dozen or sixteen join with other families to make a great covey of several hundred, or in the old days before the market-hunters came, several thousand. And they all run. The bottom of the quail's foot is always itching for the ground; and he seems never so happy as when leaving the enemy far behind him. His

 His strong legs.  

little legs take him through the brush so fast that you cannot keep up with him. Every muscle in him is as tough as a watch-spring. You may wound him, but you have not yet got him. He will creep into some cactus patch or crawl down a snake-hole—elude you in some way—and in the end die game just out of your reach.


 Bush-birds.  

There are few trees upon the desert and few bushes of any size; yet there are birds of the tree and the bush here just as there are birds of the air and the ground. The most of them seem the same kind of linnets, sparrows, and thrushes that are seen along the California coast; though probably they have some peculiar desert characteristic. I cannot see any difference between the little woodpeckers here and the woodpeckers elsewhere; yet this desert variety flies from sahuaro to sahuaro, alights on the spiny trunk with a little thump, and immediately

 The wood-peckers and cactus.  

[page 187] begins hitching himself up through the worst imaginable rows of needles just as though he were climbing a plain pine-tree. The ordinary turtle-dove with his red pigeon-feet alights on the top of the same sahuaro, the wren bores holes in it and makes a nest within the cylinder; and the dwarf thrush dashes in and out of tangled thickets of cholla all day long, and yet none of them suffers any injury. It seems incredible that birds not accustomed to the desert could do such things.

Possibly, too, these bush-birds—insect-devourers most of them—have some special faculty for catching their prey, though I have not been

 Finches and mocking-birds.  

able to discover it. The fly-catchers, the mocking-birds, the finches, in a land of plenty are quick enough in breaking the back of a butterfly or beetle, and any extra energy would seem superfluous. Still there is no telling what fine extra stimulus lies in an empty crop. And crops are usually empty on the desert. Even

 The humming-bird.  

the little humming-bird has difficulty in picking a living. In blossom time he is, of course, in fine condition, but I have seen him dashing about in the fall when nothing at all was in bloom, and evidently none the worse for some starvation. He is a swifter flyer than the ordinary [page 188] bird and is also duller in coloring, but in other respects he seems not different. He breeds on the desert, building his nest in the pitahaya; and he and his mate then have a standing quarrel with their neighbors for the rest of the summer. There is not in the whole feathered tribe a more quarrelsome scrap of vivacity than the humming-bird.


 Doves and grosbeaks.  

The dwarf dove common to Sonora, the oven-bird, the red grosbeak, and many other of the smaller birds known to civilization, are found on the desert; but apparently with no special faculty for overcoming its hardships. This is due perhaps to the fact that they are not always there—are not exclusively desert birds. Nor do any of the migratory birds belong to the desert, though they stop here for weeks at a time in their flights north or south. At almost any season of the year one sees the cow-blackbird and the smaller crow-blackbird. The mocking-bird comes only in the spring

 The lark and flicker.  

and fall, and the lark in early summer. The lark looks precisely like the Eastern bird, but his note is changed; whereas the flicker has changed the color under his wings from yellow to pink, but not his note. The robin is no whit different from the front-lawn robin of [page 189] our childhood; and the bobolink rising from salt-bush and yucca, singing as he rises, is the bobolink of ancient days. At times there are

 Jays and magpies.  

troops of magpies that come and go across the waste, and at other times troops of blue-jays. And high in air through the warmth of spring and the cold of autumn there are great flocks

 Water-fowl.  

of ducks, geese, brant, divers, shags, willet, curlew, swinging along silently to the southern or northern waterways. They seldom pause, even when following the Colorado River, unless in need of water. On the mesas and uplands one sometimes sees a group of sand-hill cranes walking about and indulging in a crazy dance peculiarly their own, but the sight is no longer a common one.


 Beetles and worms.  

And again the prey—what of the prey? Has Nature left the beetles, the bugs, the worms, the bees, completely at the pleasure of the bird's beak? No; not completely, though it must be acknowledged that she has not provided much defensive armor for them individually. She incases her beautiful blue and yellow beetles in hard shells that other insects cannot break through, but they are flimsy defences against the mocking-bird. To bugs and worms and bees she gives perhaps a sting, deadly [page 190] enough when thrust into a spider, but useless again when used in defence against a cactus-thrush. And this is where Nature shows her absolute indifference to the life or the death of the individual. She allows the bugs and beetles to be slaughtered like the mackerel in the sea. But she is a little more careful about preserving the species. And how does she do this without

 Fighting destruction by breed.  

preserving the individual? Why, simply by increasing the number of individuals, by breed, by fertility, by multiplicity. Thousands are annually slaughtered; yes, but thousands are annually bred. What matter about their lives or deaths provided they do not increase or decrease as a species!

The insects on the desert are mere flashes of life—pin-points of energy—but not without purpose and not without beauty. The beasts and the birds may be bleached brown or gray by the sun; but the insects are many of them as gay as those of the tropics. The ordinary beetles that a chance turn of a stone reveals are like scarabs of gold, turquoise, azurite, bronze,

 The blue and green beetles.  

platinum, hurrying and scurrying out of the way. The tarantula-wasp, with his gorgeous orange-colored body and his blue wings, is like a bauble made of precious stones flickering along [page 191] the ground. The great dragon-fly with his many-lensed eyes, the bees with black and yellow

 Butterflies.  

bodies, the butterflies with bright-hued wings, the white and gray millers—all of them dwellers in the sands—are spots of light and color that illumine the desert as the rich jewel the Ethiop's ear. The wings of gauze that bear the ordinary fly upon the air, the feet of ebony that carry the plain black beetle along the rocks, are made with just as much care and skill as the wings of the condor and the foot of the road-runner. Nature in every product of her hand shows the completeness of her workmanship. She made the wings and the legs for a purpose and they fulfil that purpose. They

 Design and character.  

are without flaw and above reproach. Once more, therefore, have they character and fitness, and once more, therefore, are they beautiful.


 Beauty of birds.  

I need not now argue beauty in the birds, the beetles, and the butterflies. You will admit it without argument. The slate-blue of the quail, the gay red of the grosbeak, the charm of the rock-wren, the vivacity of the bobolink or the scale-runner, captivate you and compel your sympathy and admiration. Yes; but everyone of them is, after his kind, as much of a butcher, just as much of a destroyer, as the wild cat or [page 192] the yellow rattlesnake. And they have no more character and perhaps less fitness for the desert life than the sneaking coyote or the flattened lizard which you do not admire. But why are not the coyote and the lizard beautiful too?

 Beauty also of reptiles.  

Why not the beauty of the horned toad and the serpent? Are we never to love or to admire save where form and color tickle the eye? Are these forever to monopolize the name of beauty and gather to themselves the world's applause?

If we could but rid ourselves of the false ideas, which, taken en masse, are called education, we should know that there is nothing ugly under the sun, save that which comes from human

 Nature's work all purposeful.  

distortion. Nature's work is all of it good, all of it purposeful, all of it wonderful, all of it beautiful. We like or dislike certain things which may be a way of expressing our prejudice or our limitation; but the work is always perfect of its kind irrespective of human appreciation. We may prefer the sunlight to the starlight, the evening primrose to the bisnaga, the antelope to the mountain lion, the mocking-bird to the lizard; but to say that one is good and the other bad, that one is beautiful and the other ugly, is to accuse Nature herself of preference—something which she never knew. She designs [page 193] for the cactus of the desert as skilfully and as faithfully as for the lily of the garden. Each in its

 Precious jewel of the toad.  

way is suited to its place, and each in its way has its unique beauty of character. And so, more truly perhaps than Shakespeare himself knew, the toad called ugly and venomous, still holds a precious jewel in its head.

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