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The Hidden Egg

This time of year the world is pregnant with nests full of eggs, tiny cottontails hopping and hiding in the yard, fledgling birds following their parents food-begging insistently, new yellow-green leaves and catkins on the mesquite trees, and glorious cactus blooms.

<< Praying mantis egg-case on a Palo Verde twig (photo E.Shock). >> close-up of a mesquite catkin (photo A.Shock)

But as this acceleration of generation increases, we see another side of abundance: broken eggs on the ground, young birds not experienced enough to stay out of the street, small mammals learning the hard way about the swimming pool, an adult gopher snake swallowing a tiny cottontail.

Spring is a scavenger’s prime-time. We’ve been watching an Inca Dove carcass decompose under the tangerine tree. In the dry desert, this isn’t a grisly thing: if not enjoyed by raccoons, foxes, or feral cats, the soft parts are quickly consumed by the local scuttling scavengers, usually ants or dermestid beetles and the like. Inca Doves are small, anyway — there’s not much to them, and small bodies don’t have time to bloat, liquefy, or smell very much.

>> Inca dove skeleton (photo A.Shock)

Decomposition is short and if not sweet, at least efficient. What was an intact dove carcass lying in the leaf litter a couple of days ago was, by yesterday, an articulated partial skeleton. The head was gone, but the ribs were still festooned with a few feathers, and the pelvis dangled two femurs and a foot. The ants’ tidy de-fleshing revealed a possible cause of death invisible to us before: egg-binding. Look below the rib-cage under the vertebrae and pelvis, and you can see an intact egg, cracked but still heavy with its contents, in place in the abdominal cavity.

<< Here’s a side-view. The large blade-shaped bone on the right is the little dove’s keel, or breast-bone; the egg sits snugly — perhaps a little too snugly — under the tiny pelvis.

I don’t have my own photo of an Inca Dove — although they’re common in our yard, they’re camera-shy, at least in my experience. But if you need the reassurance of a living image, or more info about Inca Doves, click here, for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology entry on the species.

And just to sweeten the pot because after all it is the holiday season, here’s a photo I posted last spring, of two terribly tiny bunnies snuggled into the form their mother scraped out for them. Go ahead; click to enlarge to see their tiny fluffy details. It was either this or one of the gopher snake eating a baby cottontail, but I think I’ll save that for next Easter.

>> two infant cottontails stashed in a form (photo A.Shock)

A Little the worse for wear

They don’t all make it.  E found a dead fledgling hummingbird in the path across the wash, under the palo verde tree. It was dried, mummified, an inoffensive inanimate thing, not even worth the ants picking over.  We buried it under a nearby chuparosa, a favored food of hummers.  (Photos E.Shock)

Top: detail of foot, with primary feathers behind.

Middle: detail of rump feathers and tail feathers, showing juvenile buffy-edged plumage with a hint of metallic green.  The green deck feathers (middle tail feathers) are just growing in.

Bottom: whole little corpse, with partly-grown baby-beak.

The Curious Case of the Corpse in the Yucca

Cactus wrens are a large (for a wren), lively, and common presence all over the low-elevation deserts in the American Southwest.  The photo to left left shows one sitting on a cholla branch.  They do that a lot, often while making all sorts of  mechanical-sounding vocalizations like drbrdrbrdrbrdrr or krakrakrakrakrakra.  Cactus wrens are expert at landing on, perching on, and building in fiercely prickly vegetation, usually constructing their unruly globular “kitchen sink” nests weaving fiber, litter, twigs and plastic safely into the protective arms of seriously spiny cactus species like cholla.

Last week we found a Cactus wren dead in our yard, stuck in the leaves of a yucca.  Here’s a photo I took of it (take my word for it, the spotty plumage is diagnostic):

This was certainly sad, but it also seemed very odd.  We couldn’t tell how the bird died, but there it was, a sorry speckled-feathery carcass wedged in the leaves of a Soaptree yucca.  Was it stashed there by a predator?  Not likely; there are predators that do that, but they don’t frequent our yard.  Did it die in the foliage above and fall there?  That doesn’t seem likely, either — it was wedged in tight, and somewhat horizontally.  Did it get stuck there, somehow, maybe a foot caught in the narrow leaves?  Possibly.

Here’s another wren story, not sad and perhaps enlightening.

Just a few days after the macabre yard find, E and I visited Boyce Thompson Arboretum, and paused on our walk for a few moments to watch a pair of Cactus wrens (Campylorhyncus brunneicapillus) busily working on a nest in the upper branches of a tree Prickly pear, a really tall variety of Opuntia. You can see the main support pad in the photo on the left, with the fibrous nesting material sticking out to the right, and the streaky bird’s head poking out to the left.  The wren was about to launch itself into the next plant over, a Soaptree yucca, to continue rummaging between the rigid leaves to gather tough hair-like fibers (visible especially clearly in the carcass photo above) that grow along the yucca stem at the bases of the leaves.  It did this over and over again, each time going deep into the spiky growth to tug and pull at the free building material to use in its nest.  Below is the best photo we managed of the wren reappearing with its beak full of yucca fibers.  Considering the tough and pointy nature of the vegetation as well as the close quarters, it looked like hazardous work, although poking around in nooks and crannies, probing with their narrow, strong beak, is what cactus wrens are built to do.  (I’ve tried to extract unwanted volunteers like fan palm sproutlings and African sumac seedlings from inside yucca clumps, and let me say that gloves, eye protection and long sleeves are often not up to the task.)

So did our hapless yard wren get caught somehow while carrying out this dangerous domestic mission?  We can never know for sure, but it seems in the realm of possibility.  It’s hard out there for a bird.

(Top photo, from Wikimedia Commons, by Mark Wagner.  Other photos by A&E Shock)

Another dire tale of cactus wren-related nesting mishap casts the spectre of botanical revenge on this story: a couple of years ago, the continuous plucking of fiber off of a hairy “Old Man” cactus in the yard by a diligently nesting Cactus wren denuded the plant’s crown so much it experienced horrible sun-burn, and died.

Posted by Allison on Apr 5th 2009 | Filed in birds,close in,doom and gloom,natural history,nidification,oddities,yard list | Comments (0)

Thanksgiving saguaro plunge–Carnegiea carnage

It was leaning, but not that much.  On Thanksgiving morning while we had breakfast (E, the M, and me), it fell with a huge thump from no particular direction. Later, E found the saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea): under the back mesquite, lying split like a toppled Doric column on top of beloved cax and sux, some in the ground, some in pots on shelves. Its weight had splintered a 2×12 pine shelf, cracking it nearly in two.  It popped a mature barrel cactus out of the ground roots and all, and launched pots in the air, so that they landed in uprooted piles.  It took all three of us to dig out the victims pinned under the wreckage, embedded in green flesh, impaled on spines.  Lots of crushed plants, but only two pots lost and only one hand-made one; a small clay “miracle”.  Still, it was gruesome, and the saguaro, although probably 50 years old, wasn’t anywhere near the end of its expected life span.  It hadn’t even grown arms yet, like some of the older saguaros in this mature desert neighborhood.

Pictures tell the story best.

In order to remove the plants from under it, we had to prop the saguaro incrementally up onto cinder blocks, where it now lies abandoned like an old car, awaiting decomposition, its length unnaturally separated from the soil below.  Sadly, as damaged as it is, it looks very whole even lying there, and a few of its roots, still buried in the damp desert soil, are so far keeping it green and living, a support system that won’t bring life back.

Posted by Allison on Dec 14th 2008 | Filed in botany,doom and gloom,natural history,yard list | Comments (0)

Botanical horrors: when grass grows bad

Here is a photo of a lovely Red barrel cactus in Miss Thang’s garden.

The barrel is happy where it is, and is growing quickly and healthily.  Unfortunately, we’ve had a Bermuda Grass invasion nearby, and despite E‘s manual, non-toxic efforts to control the grass, it’s spread up to the Red Barrel.  It was bad enough when the awful spikes of grass began to come up around the fat base of the cactus, but look closely — at about 3 o’clock on the shadowy right side of the barrel, there is a double spike of insidious grassy green poking out between the cactus’s ribs, inside the cage of the spines.  That is a Bermuda grass shoot growing out through the side of the barrel!  The horrid monocot grew around and under the cactus, and sent up sharp new shoots through its flesh and out its skin about 4 inches up from the soil line, where it’s now established itself contentedly at the expense of the barrel’s structural integrity.  I imagine roots spreading through the interior of the cactus, sucking moisture without remorse.

If you can stand it, here is a close-up, click on the image to enlarge it.

It turns the stomach.

Posted by Allison on Dec 7th 2008 | Filed in botany,close in,doom and gloom,natural history,oddities,yard list | Comments (0)

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