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Oct 02 2012

UFD: This Bird is a Badass

So here’s the thing about ocotillo: it’s not nice. Oh, I grant you, it can be lovely to look at, especially when it’s blooming. It’s a wonderful desert plant, and I’m sure it’s ecologically important, and one or two in a xeroscaped yard look very classy and Southwestern indeed. However:

The Ocotillo is a bajada resident that can be relied on to bloom annually, even without leafing in particularly dry springs. It is an inverted, funnel-shaped desert plant with several woody, spiny, whip-like, straight branches angling outward from the base and rising as high as 20 feet.

Key word: spiny.

Ocotillo thorns. Definitely spiny. Image taken in Anza Borrego by David Corby.

Not to mention whip-like.

Whip-like. Yup. Image courtesy MoveableBookLady.

So, yes, spiny (and whip-like). Roses have thorns, and crimson ocotillo spikes, Shakespeare might have said.* Except he didn’t, because a quick trip to the desert Southwest of the Americas wasn’t in his stars. I don’t even know if ocotillo had been named yet. But I’m relatively sure that the first European explorers in the Southwest didn’t miss it – it’s rather in your face.

And the Native American population had been familiar with the stuff for thousands of years: they were using it to make sweet summer drinks, candy, flour, footbaths, and medicine. Also, they built things with it. This is the desert. Wicked-sharp spines are no deterrent to clever people with limited plant resources.

Still. You don’t look at this stuff and think, “That would make an ideal chair.” Unless, of course, you are the most badass fucking hummingbird in the desert.

UFD I, aka the Ocotillo Kid. Taken at Joshua Tree State Park, southern California, May 2010. Image courtesy MoveableBookLady.

Seriously, that is a hardcore bird. The spines on an ocotillo could skewer it. Yet here it is, completely unconcerned, probably smirking at its would-be predators, although it’s hard to tell with beaks.

MoveableBookLady, who sent me this utterly fabulous photo, would like to know if any of you are wizard enough to identify the species. Here’s a crop that may give you a better shot at naming our badass.

UFD II, aka the Ocotillo Kid. Taken at Joshua Tree State Park, southern California, May 2010. Image courtesy MoveableBookLady.

So: desert Southwest hummingbird, pollinates ocotillo, uses them as lounge chairs, has a keen sense of the artistic. What is it?

Good luck.

 

*See Sonnet XXXV. People can babble about Hamlet and King Lear and whatever other play all they like, and quote “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” until I punch them in the face to make them stop, but it’s Sonnet XXXV that made me sit up and go, “Hullo, this William Shakespeare is definitely one badass fucking writer.” Convinced me the man deserved his rep, and that sonnets weren’t all limp and tired burblings about wuv, twue wuv. This shit cuts. Read it.

17 comments

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  1. 1
    rq

    Costa’s hummingbird, female. (http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Costas_Hummingbird/id – that purple one is the male – stunning plumage!)
    The other hummingbird mentioned in relation to deserts is the calliope, but the Costa’s has the darker wings together with the paler head, so I’m sticking go it.
    The distance and the angle make it difficult to distinguish colours, though. But yes. Costa’s hummingbird, female.

  2. 2
    lochaber

    but you can use ocotillo to make those funny traps for quails…

  3. 3
    heliconia

    I concur with rq, and will now proceed to sulk about how eastern North America only gets one hummingbird species.

    1. 3.1
      rq

      Europe has none. :( I’ve been sulking about it every spring for the past 6 years now. I’m considering an inadvertent introduction at some point… Too bad the wee birdies are delicate by nature.

      1. heliconia

        And here’s how not to do it.

        1. rq

          They’re so cute! And small! And tucked in cosily!
          Not envious of their transportation, though. AT ALL. Breathability in those conditions must be torture. Gives a whole new meaning to the Australian term ‘budgie smugglers’, though. And ‘pins and needles’.

  4. 4
    Gregory in Seattle

    I remember living in Tucson in my youth. It was fun, going on hikes in the desert and seeing plants like this. If you want bad-ass cactus, though, I nominate the cholla. It has this beautiful woody “skeleton” that is commonly seen in folk art in the Southwest, but the cactus itself can be lethal: the buds are very loosely connected to the main plant, which means they drop very easily with disturbances as minimal as walking too close. And the spines are very dense, very long and very sharp: they have been known to impale and kill animals.

  5. 5
    Gregory in Seattle

    Feh! Hit return. Anyway, ocotillo makes great fencing. You start by planting freshly cut stalks ever few feet around the area you are fencing in and water them lightly: like many desert plants, ocotillo is very opportunistic and will take root when conditions are decent. Then, take more stems and connect them into a flat sheet with bailing wire along the top, bottom and one or two lines in the middle. Connect the sheets to the planeted “posts” and there you go: a durable, cheap and very effective fence. With a bit of extra work, you can even use ocotillo and wire to make a gate in your fence.

  6. 6
    Worldtraveller

    I can’t tell from the pic whether it’s an Anna’s, or Costas, two of the more common (of 15!) species in the desert southwest. So rq, tell me what makes you so sure. =)

    I have lived in Tucson for ~20 years, but am currently in the PNW. If you like hummingbirds, you absolutely must make a trip to Madera Canyon, about 45 mins south of Tucson. Absolutely amazing, and probably the best place in N America for seeing hummingbirds.

    1. 6.1
      rq

      Darker leading edge of the wing, shorter rounder tail. :) Anna’s hummingbird seems to have a longer, more slender, tail, also lighter (at least, more even) colouring. This is from my comparison of the females using google and my fine discerning eye. :)

  7. 7
    movablebooklady

    What a nice write-up! I’ll tuck “Costa’s” away in my brain, thanks to these knowledgeable folk. Gregory beat me to talking about ocotillo fencing, which I just love. I lived in Tucson for 14 years and have lots of gorgeous photos. What I want to do with this bird photo is make a Chinese-style wallpaper. Wouldn’t that be fantastic? Anyhow, thanks for using my photo and getting me the answer.

  8. 8
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    Reminds me of a David Attenborough doco /episode on Madagascar which has a similar sort of ultra-spiky arid zone plant – and a type of lemur jumping around happily in it despite similar really nasty, wicked looking thorny branches!

    Does anyone else remember that or know what I’m thinking of?

  9. 9
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    Aha. Might be this :

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v5vJZIhxORo

    With Shifuks as the lemur species. (Say that carefully folks!)

    Note especially at about the 30 seconds in mark with the Didiera (spelling) trees.

    Except its not a David Attenborough one & I could swear the one I saw was .. So, still wondering.

    1. 9.1
      StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

      Hmm .. see :

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Didiereaceae

      Seems they’re related to cacti.

      Can’t seem to find the lemur species or Attenborough doco tho’

  10. 10
    otrame

    As for the Sonnets, yes, I don’t care for the “summer’s day” ones. They always struck me over-sugared sweets he made for someone. The ones that count, for me, are like #138

    When my love swears that she is made of truth
    I do believe her, though I know she lies,

    Or, my personal favorite # 89 (partially because I am pretty sure it was about his relationship with “Mr. W. H.”)

    Say that thou didst forsake me for some fault,
    And I will comment upon that offence;
    Speak of my lameness, and I straight will halt,
    Against thy reasons making no defence.
    Thou canst not, love, disgrace me half so ill,
    To set a form upon desired change,
    As I’ll myself disgrace: knowing thy will,
    I will acquaintance strangle and look strange,
    Be absent from thy walks, and in my tongue
    Thy sweet beloved name no more shall dwell,
    Lest I, too much profane, should do it wrong
    And haply of our old acquaintance tell.
    ….For thee against myself I’ll vow debate,
    ….For I must ne’er love him whom thou dost hate.

  11. 11
    kathyr

    For an example of another badass bird, google up some images of “cactus wren nest”. The nests are incredible, and the birds themselves are quite attractive (and apparently thorn-proof).

    #5 – Someone pointed out the remains of some old ocotillo fencing to me last fall when I was in the Bisbee, Arizona area. I had never seen it before, despite many previous trips to SE AZ.

  12. 12
    Worldtraveller

    Our house in Tucson was on the NW side of town, on about 2/3 of an acre, surrounded by desert. (the house/yard took only about 1/4 of the land, so it was mostly wild)

    I planted flowers that were quite good at attracting hummingbirds, and I have seen at least 4 different species on a regular basis, with the Costas and Rufus being most prevalent. Broad tail and broad bills almost as much, and a fair amount of Anna’s. Much less common, but a few sightings of Lucifer’s (I’m fairly certain, never 100% identified them) and calliopes.

    I’ve seen a magnificent a couple times in Madera Canyon, very impressive bird, and it makes a distinctive sound when flying nearby.

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