Wild Critters & a Chorus of Culture

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BorderLore spoke with Tucson Audubon Society Executive Director Paul Green, Volunteer & Development Coordinator Kara Kaczmarzyk, Development Manager Erin Olmstead and Important Bird Area (IBA) Manager Jennie MacFarland about the folklife of birding here in our region, the bird cultures that inhabit our wild lands, and how birds impact our sense of place:

Tucson Meet Yourself celebrates cultures, and you have said that our region houses various cultures of birds, yes? Would you briefly describe these informally-grouped bird cultures?

Tucson Audubon Society:
Birdlife, like many other aspects of life in the Southeastern Arizona borderlands, is closely tied to Mexico and the tropics. Some of our ‘favorites’ are found in few, if any, other places in the US. For instance, Elegant Trogon, Five-Striped Sparrow, and a dazzling array of hummingbirds attract birders from around the country and beyond. Southeast Arizona’s incredible mosaic of habitat types, elevations and plant communities make this area such an exceptional place for birds and birders alike. Birds seem to group within three informal cultures — the iconic local birds, the vagrants and the migrants.

Elegant Trogon
Elegant Trogon, image credit Donna Tolbert-Anderson

Arizona’s desert landscapes are not complete without some of this area’s iconic birds: A Greater Roadrunner poised to cross the road, a Gamble’s Quail mournfully calling from the top of a creosote bush while a Gila Woodpecker hammers on a saguaro. These and many other birds are part of southeast Arizona’s identity and all visitors hope to see these birds. Some of those visitors are especially drawn to this area by our amazing birdlife, with its incredible diversity and list of species that can be found nowhere else in the U.S. including the Abert’s Towhee, the bird with the smallest total distribution of an U.S. bird that is a common sight in washes in Tucson.

The dramatic monsoon season with towering clouds and sudden storms brings vagrant birds — or birds that stray far outside their expected range — north of the Mexican border into Arizona. These avian visitors include the rare and exquisite Aztec Thrush, Fan-tailed Warbler and Slate-throated Redstart. Elegant Trogon, a vibrantly colored tropical bird is a regular summer breeder in SE Arizona that birders come from all over the country to see nesting in our Sky Island mountain ranges. Each summer birders wait with glee to see which species will visit our state drawn by the “second spring” our summer rains bring.

Some bird species are visitors themselves and pass through each spring and fall. Such a short window of time makes seeing these migrants even more special. Others will spend the spring with us while they nest, the beautiful and demure Lucy’s Warblers signal the arrival of spring with their melodic songs early in the season. Birds like the Summer Tanager, whose male is the only all red bird in North America, depend on the cottonwood and willow riparian habitats that line rivers and streams to successfully raise their young.

How do you believe birds contribute to a sense of place in our Sonoran desert communities?

Tucson Audubon Society:
Fascinating behavior, color, and song grab our attention – birds make us notice the natural world around us and appreciate what is unique about southeastern Arizona. The sight or sound of a particular species may help a birder find his place on the map. Here, several life zones come together: the Sonoran and Chihauhuan deserts merge and the Rocky Mountains from the north meet the Sierra Madre from the south. Our bird communities, which like our human communities are unique to this region, often span the border. Birds help us to understand not just our physical place, but our relationship with that place and the other living things with which we share our home.

Birds play an important role in many traditional Native American cultures… so many birds are part of the folklore for Yaqui as well as O’odham nations. What can you say about this — do you have any favorite traditional stories or folklore that involve birds?

Tucson Audubon Society:
Many of the children’s books in our nature shops address the importance of birds in cultural traditions. Searching online, one can find many links between birds and various native cultures. For example, The Bluebird and the Coyote, a Tohono O’odham tale, may refer to a Blue Grosbeak, while the Pima have a Legend About Coyote, and birds are central to the Yaqui story Ku Wikit.

Roadrunner, image credit Doris Evans

Your recent festival attracted visitors from around the country. Birding certainly is a driver of the local economy! Can you give us some highlights?

Tucson Audubon Society:
The 3rd annual Tucson Bird & Wildlife Festival was a success! Nearly 800 people flocked to downtown Tucson to discover, learn about, and enjoy the Sonoran Desert and Sky Islands. Monsoon brings a Second Spring to the desert and it is ‘high season’ for hummingbirds and butterflies. Our friendly expert birding and wildlife community helped visitors from 22 states experience our unique biodiversity. Some highlights: A wonderfully thought-provoking keynote by Dr. J. Drew Lanham, whose timely message about diversity and conservation, and broadening the base of the birding community, inspired us. In bird news, a Blue-Footed Booby at Patagonia Lake State Park was a memorable surprise ‘lifer’ for many, locals and visitors alike, as most of our festival excursions made a detour to the park for a chance to see this unusual vagrant.

Birding and watchable wildlife is a significant part of Tucson’s vibrant tourism mix. Our region is consistently recognized among the top birding and nature destinations in the country. Watchable wildlife activities (which include observing, photographing, or feeding wildlife) create a $1.4 billion economic impact in the state of Arizona. Locally, these activities are responsible for a $330 million annual economic impact and nearly 3000 jobs in Pima, Cochise, and Santa Cruz counties. Birding is one of America’s fastest-growing hobbies, with 47 million Americans participating at last count. We see events like the Tucson Bird & Wildlife Festival, (and Tucson Meet Yourself) as fun opportunities to engage our community in enjoying, understanding, and protecting our valuable community assets.

Nature Expo at the 2013 Tucson Bird & Wildlife Festival
Nature Expo at the 2013 Tucson Bird & Wildlife Festival, image credit Brad Steinagel

Bird watchers are diverse; there’s a bit of a bird-watcher in all of us. Birders make up a “community.” What can you tell us about Tucson birder folklife?

The local birding community is encompassed by those to whom birds are a part of their life. Lifelong southeast Arizona resident Rick Taylor embodies this passion. His Birds of Southeast Arizona is a must-have book for any birder in our region and his energy extends to citizen-science bird population surveys, as a bird tour guide, as a dedicated volunteer, and a voice for this unique region.

There are countless ways to “do” birding and our community spans the extremes, from casual, backyard birders, to committed citizen scientists, to professional bird guides and researchers to serious travelers. From the young birder with their first field guide in hand to the dedicated volunteer who shares their lifelong love of birding as a field trip leader, the common ground is an interest in birds, a love of learning, and a concern for the health of the natural world (for ourselves, our neighbors, and our future generations.)

What do you want to say about our Important Bird Areas and how these are vital to our folklife and our sense of place?

The Arizona Important Bird Area (IBA) Program throws a light on what many people have known for generations: that there are special places and unique habitats in southern Arizona. Sites identified as IBAs such as the Chiricahua Mountains and Pinleno Mountains have sacred meaning to native peoples and also play a key part in Arizona’s “Wild West” history. To current residents of southern Arizona these are treasured recreation areas where many happy memories of family camping trips were formed. Throughout all of these different human experiences, these sites remain vital bird habitat and have thus been recognized as a global network of sites vital to the continuing existence of native bird species.


  • Visit tucsonaudubon.org for all things birdy, from common questions about birds to the birding and learning opportunities we offer, to our quarterly news magazine and information about joining this Tucson Audubon community.
  • For more information about the economic impact of watchable wildlife viewing, visit www.tucsonaudubon.org/birdingeconomics.
  • Tucson Meet Your Birds will be featured at the 2013 TMY, and include exhibits, bird lists, books and resources for anyone wanting to learn more about the region’s birding folklife and its activities.

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