Monday, May 3, 2010

Fence Post Cactus - of Avian Death

Last spring, Dr Desert Flower and I were elated to see the center piece of our front yard- the massive Fence Post Cactus on steroids - become the home for a nest of a pair of song birds. The residents were either vireos or titmice, but we never saw them roosting in the nest.

On the 2nd morning after the nest construction began, we found the nest and its grayish-blue feathered inhabitants eviscerated, strewn over the yucca that was just beneath it, the work of a nocturnal hawk or Owl, or perhaps a murder of aggressive Crows. I cleaned up the entrails, and figured there would be no avian inhabitants.

Then, last month, the largest arm of the cactus fell onto the garage, and I was about to proactively prune the 2nd highest arm that leans towards the street before it falls onto a parked car... but Dr Desert Flower spotted this adorable little vireo nest:
When she would wait by the curb on car pooling days (for her 50 mile trek to the lab) the attentive vireo parents would flit about, feeding the hatchlings through a thumb sized hole, that only a tiny song bird head could reach through. A pair of clueless mourning doves roosted ABOVE this nest, preparing to lay their eggs above the vireo's clandestine, spine protected nest. I say "clueless" because I once watched a pair of mourning doves in my back yard begin to build a nest on the top of a 10 foot ladder I had leaned against my patio to climb to the roof and watch the sunset. Mourning doves are not the sharpest beaks at the bird feeder of life.

So it was with great dismay that Sunday morning, once again, that we found a pile of gray feathers where the adorable little vireos' nest used to be. The top ripped off their nest, some nocturnal raptor decimated their nest, ate their babies, and made a general mess of things. I found one of the parents 2 meters away, with a dime sized pool of blood coming from it's punctured neck, expired next to my water meter's metallic cover, probably fatally wounded in defense of it's children. =(

But there is a happy ending to this story... or at least temporarily happy. As I was weeding in the front yard Sunday, a New pair of vireos flitted about, investigated the 1/2 destroyed nest, and in a brazen display of exhibitionism, copulated repeatedly:
Female vireo: "Look honey! all we have to do is put a roof on it, and it's all ours!"
Male vireo: "Oh baby, your plumage looks so hot as you lean up to look into that entrance way, I gotta take you!!"
Female vireo: "OK, but make it quick, there's one of those large, clumsy bipeds watching us!"
Male vireo: "Oh yeah baby! Don't worry about him, he can't fly, or sing!"
...and they copulated... and flitted about, and copulated again, perhaps convinced that they'd found their dream home, here on Phoenix's west side. Poor kids... I guess they didn't notice the entrails scattered about the base of the cactus, or the corpse of the previous owner, 2 meters away. Maybe they were just so love struck / lust struck / driven to reproduce, that they didn't care?

So the cute little vireos reproduce, sing alot, and provide joy to Dr Desert Flower and I in April as we see and hear them, only to nourish the voracious appetite some nocturnal raptor. Raptors gotta eat too... so I can't be too sad. I just wish we could have one batch of hatchlings actually grow up enough to leave the nest, before becoming raptor food. If the new promiscuous vireos don't put a roof on their newly acquired nest, and no one moves in to raise another ill fated family, I have some serious trimming to do at the top of my 10 foot ladder, curbside this weekend, before the 2nd highest cactus arm succumbs to gravity and old age and topples into the street with a powerful gust of wind. Il faut voir.


  1. life is cruel, no? but, you are lucky to have such drama right on your door step. Although, I could do with out the big flying Tarantula Hawks...eewwwww. Those things would get a even better dance than the cicada got when it landed on me a few years back.

    I actually spotted a mangled goose corpse at work yesterday (although corpse is perhaps not right, since all that was left were 2 wings and a LOT of feathers). I was wearing the Vibram's around the campus (hiding out from my co-workers) and people are running on the outdoor track just ignoring the carnage. How? I had to go in for a closer look - and people who were running by thought I was odd. *shrug* it might not have to do with the goose. :) Still wondering what we have around campus that is big enough to take something like that down and eat it.

  2. a full grown fox could / would eat a goose, as would a coyote (now living in all 48 states, mostly in urban areas). A small fox would have problems taking down a goose, but a large feral dog (pit bull sized) or more likely, a hungry fox, would render a goose carcass in less than an hour.

    Another possibility, is a large hawk or eagle - especially as you've described just the wings being left. I once watched an adolescent hawk eviscerate a titmouse in my South Carolina back yard. Swooped in from my bird feeder (hawk feeder) and took one of the flock of 4, then 3, then 2 titmice (over a period of a month). The pile of bluish feathers, and swarmed flies I found later while cutting grass, but the hawk left very little behind, efficiently recycling.

    If the goose was enfeebled, there's no shortage of smaller vertebrates that could have taken it down. When I was a kid, we got baby ducks at the Calumet City carnival, that we raised from cell phone sized chicks to butterball sized Peking ducks, in a pen in the back yard. When they were about 5 years old, we "released them into the wild" at a Knights of Columbus pond in Schereville IN - where they lasted all of 2 months before a fox (who lived in the woods behind the pond) devoured each juicy full grown duck.

  3. I'm thinking a fox or coyote, although I've never seen one at work. But, there are enough forest preserves close by to hide some fairly large animals.

    While I wouldn't want to see the actual attack (bit too close and personal). I would have loved to have seen the animal.

    I am impressed with you animal planet like knowledge- btw. :)


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