The most efficient way to become familiar with the wildlife of the southern Arizona desert is to visit the Sonoran Desert Museum, which is actually a zoo, and one of the world’s finest.
Situated on the quiet side of the Tucson mountain range west of the city, the Desert Museum occupies a broad expanse of undisturbed desert habitat near Saguaro National Park.
It is always sad to watch a beautiful wild animal such as a mountain lion pace in captivity. However, at the Desert Museum at least a small version of the animal’s native habitat is replicated with care.
And if there weren’t such a zoo, I would go through life never seeing most of Arizona’s animals at all.
Some animals such as bobcats, otters, prairie dogs and coyotes are familiar from back home.
Others, such as the pig-like javalina, are so exotic to a midwesterner that your first reaction is to just laugh.
The rare leopard-like ocelot, the nearly extinct Mexican wolf, the coati mundi — a long-snouted Mexican version of a raccoon — and other rare animals awaken one to the amazing array of animals on just our continent.
In addition to hundreds of animal species, the Desert Museum is an arboretum for 1,400 varieties of plants native to southern Arizona and northern Mexico.
However, there’s no need to go to a zoo to see all of Arizona’s wildlife. The beguiling roadrunner darts around the parking lots of suburban strip malls. Fearless coyotes snag house cats in broad daylight right downtown.
As you enter the many canyons around Tucson and work your way up to higher elevations, the bird life only increases. In some areas of Arizona, over 300 avian species come through at some point during the year.
I haven’t even touched on the unique types of mice, lizards, snakes, frogs, toads and even fish found in the desert. These animals have been omitted due to an unfair prejudice I harbor against critters that squirm or slither.
February in Tucson is the equivalent of May in the Upper Midwest: The birds start jibbering outside the window just before sunrise with an urgency that suggests their very survival is at stake.
Rather than drive fast cars with loud stereos, male songbirds twitter their hearts out to attract a suitable mate.
The male house finch goes into the most detail, singing an ornate forty-measure cadenza without taking a breath.
But the bird which has really won me over down here appeared outside the window on a phone wire a year ago.
Not spectacular in appearance, the mockingbird sings with an urgency and volume that pierces windows and walls, making sure those with ears to hear don’t sleep late.
Having never heard a mockingbird before, I was amazed at the variety of songs it sang. Eventually, it dawned on me how the bird earned its name: The mockingbird imitates what it hears.
Not only does it imitate other bird calls (I picked out its imitation of a red-winged blackbird right away), but it imitates cats, car alarms, squeaky gates, insects and frogs.
Not all of its imitations are convincing. But you can’t help but be convinced of the bird’s talents: Mockingbirds memorize up to 200 songs.
The mockingbirds just showed up here in downtown Tucson last week. They sit on electric wires. Once they arrive, you can’t go on a walk through an alley without hearing one.
Like a talented but attention-starved child trying to win approval, the mockingbird performs imitation after imitation in fast succession. Eventually he’ll do one so strange it will make you laugh.
Mockingbirds are fearless. They attack any animal, including hawks, that gets near their nest.
In fact, a researcher Doug Levey of the University of Florida recently proved that mockingbirds will, one day after seeing a person touch their nest, pick that same person out from a crowd and attack him mercilessly.
Although the mockingbird is honored as the state bird in five states, it is seen by many as sort of a pest — particularly by those who work nights and want to get some sleep, or by postal delivery people who are on the bird’s black list.
However, after hearing it babble for the first time, I now know why the mockingbird so often stars in literature, songs, poems and lullabies.