Portfolio: Sonoran Desert Biodiversity


Common Backyard Birds of Tucson, Arizona

Katja Schulz

Southeast Arizona is one of the most interesting areas for birders in all of North America. People from all over the world come here just to see our fabulous birds. Most of our bird diversity is in the mountains and canyons of the Chiricahuas, Huachucas, and Santa Ritas. But even in the city of Tucson, we have an abundance of beautiful and interesting birds. If you live in Tucson and don't pay attention to the birds around you, you are missing out on a great opportunity to enrich your life. On this page, I will introduce you to a few birds that are common in the neighborhoods of urban Tucson. I hope that this information will serve as a starting point for further explorations of the birds in and around Tucson.

Gambel's Quail (Callipepla gambelii)

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Male (left) and female (right) Gambel's quail. Images © Patrick Coin

This beautiful, conspicuous bird is easily recognized by the slender, plume-shaped crest, which often curves forward, so that the tip is in front of the bill. Adult males have dark patches on throat and belly, while females and immatures lack these striking markings. The California quail (Callipepla californica) has a very similar appearance, but this species does not occur in the Tucson area.

Gambel's quail is native to the desert regions of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. They are gregarious, mostly ground-dwelling birds. In fall and winter, they gather into large groups called coveys. During the summer months, small family groups can often be seen running swiftly down alleys and quiet neighborhood streets in Tucson. They are particularly common near washes and other areas with native vegetation. Their diet is very diverse including seeds, fruit, green leafy material, as well as insects and other small arthropods. Quail travelling together often noisily communicate with one another, and once you've learned their call, you'll always know when they are around. If you get too close, Gambel's quail will issue urgent alarm calls and quickly run away or fly off. They often seek refuge in trees and shrubs when sensing danger, and they roost in trees at night. If you walk in a wash in the evening, you will often flush a covey of quail that had settled in a tree for the night.

Gambel's quail are representatives of the Odontophoridae, the New World Quail family. Their closest relatives are the California quail, scaled quail, and elegant quail in the genus Callipepla. They are only remotely related to Old World quail in the Pheasant Family, Phasianidae. When you order quail meat or eggs in a restaurant, you will most likely get a phasianid species, the Japanese quail, Coturnix japonica, which is widely bred and raised for food.

Callipepla gambelii Leaf Page

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White-winged Dove (Zenaida asiatica)

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White-winged dove. Image © Scott Page

The white-winged dove is a fairly large dove with a long bill. It can be distinguished from all other doves in our area by the white ends of the outer wing coverts (small feathers which cover the bases of the longer wing feathers). They form a broad white band along the edge of the wing when it is folded and across the wing when it is opened. The reddish eye is surrounded by bright blue skin, and there is a dark streak on the cheek below the eye.

The white-winged dove is native to the southwestern United States, Mexico, and Central America. These doves breed in the Tucson area during the summer, and they are very abundant from April to September in mid-town neighborhoods. In early fall, most individuals migrate south to overwinter. The diet of the white-winged dove consists of seeds, berries, and other fruit. In Tucson, they can often be seen feeding on cactus fruit.

The closest relative of the white-winged dove is the West-Peruvian dove, Zenaida meloda, which inhabits the arid tropical regions of northwestern South America. Other members of the genus Zenaida include the mourning dove and several other Central and South American doves. Closely related genera are the mostly tropical American Leptotila and quail doves (Geotrygon).

Zenaida asiatica Leaf Page

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Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura)

Mourning dove. Image © Al And Elaine Wilson

Mourning doves are about the same size as white-winged doves, but they are more slender and have a smaller head and thinner neck and bill. Their plumage is mostly greyish-brown with a few large dark spots on the upperwings. The tail is long and pointed and has white outer edges.

This dove is widely distributed across North and Central America. It occurs year-round in Tucson and is common throughout the city. Pairs often build their nest in cacti, especially chollas. If you keep your ears open while walking through your neighborhood, you can tell the presence of mourning doves not only by their song but also by the characteristic whistle of their wings when they take flight. These doves can often be seen feeding in pairs or small groups on the ground. Their diet consists of seeds of annual weeds and grains.

The mourning dove's closest relative is most likely the Soccoro dove, Zenaida graysoni, which used to inhabit Socorro in the Revillagigedo Islands off the west coast of Mexico. Unfortunately, this dove is now extinct in the wild. Other members of the genus Zenaida include the white-winged dove and several other Central and South American doves. Closely related genera are the mostly tropical American Leptotila and quail doves (Geotrygon).

Zenaida macroura Leaf Page

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Inca Dove (Scardafella inca)

Inca dove. Image © Al And Elaine Wilson

Inca doves are small, slender doves with a long tail. The tail is narrow and pointed when folded, and the white outermost tail feathers are revealed when it is spread. The body is mostly light-gray, but the very tips of the feathers on the head, breast, and back are dark giving the plumage a scaly appearance. When the birds take flight, they make a characteristic buzzing sound, and conspicuous rusty-brown patches become visible on the wings.

Inca doves occur in the southwestern United States, Mexico, and much of Central America. They can be seen year-round all over Tucson, particularly in parks and gardens. They forage in pairs or small flocks for seeds on the ground and often roost communally in trees or on power lines. In winter they often huddle together, apparently to keep warm.

The closest relative of the inca dove is the scaled dove, Scardafella squammata, which occurs in two disjunct populations in northern and central South America. Other related doves are mostly tropical American ground doves in the genera Columbina, Metriopelia, and Uropelia.

Scardafella inca Leaf Page

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Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna)

Anna's hummingbird. Male (left), female or immature (right). Images © Emily Hoyer

Male Anna's hummingbirds are easily recognized by their crimson crown (top of head) and gorget (throat). The tail is dark, the belly is greyish white, and the back is iridescent green as in most hummingbirds. Females and immatures lack the crimson crown and show varying degrees of red spotting on the throat. The tips of their tail feathers are white. Females and immatures of most hummingbird species are very difficult to tell apart, and field identification is often impossible.

This beautiful little bird occurs along the western edge of North America from southern Alaska to northwestern Mexico. It is common in Tucson gardens and open spaces and especially seems to like areas where there is plenty of creosote. Like other hummingbirds, Anna's is a skilled flyer that can hover in the air and fly backwards. It has a typical long, slender bill which it uses to feed on nectar, pollen, and insects. It often catches insects in flight, and it will stick out its long, skinny tounge during and after feeding.

The Anna's closest relative is Costa's hummingbird, Calypte costae. Costa's also occurs in Tucson but it is much less common than Anna's. Hummingbirds are closely related to swifts and treeswifts, which are birds with highly aerial lifestyles that catch insects in flight and superficially resemble swallows.

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Gila Woodpecker (Melanerpes uropygialis)

Gila woodpecker male. Image © Al And Elaine Wilson

Gila woodpeckers have a striking black and white barred pattern on their back, upper wings, and tail. In flight, there are also large white wing patches. The rest of the body is tan, and the male has a small, round, red cap on its crown (top of the head).

This woodpecker is native to southern Arizona, southeast California, southern Nevada, southwestern New Mexico, and western to central Mexico. It is a very active, noisy bird, and its penetrating call can be heard throughout Tucson all year round. Gila woodpeckers are most often seen clinging vertically to trees, cacti, or telephone poles, excavating insects with their strong bill. While hammering on wood, or sometimes even metal roofs or drainpipes, their beaks make a characteristic drumming noise. In addition to insects, they also eat various fruits and berries. Gila woodpeckers often nest in cavities which they carve out from saguaros. Once the woodpeckers abandon their nest, a variety of other animals including lizards, owls, and rodents use them for shelter.

The gila woodpecker is part of the widespread, diverse, New World genus Melanerpes, which also includes the acorn woodpecker, Melanerpes formicivorus and the golden-fronted woodpecker, Melanerpes aurifrons. The closest relatives of the Melanerpes woodpeckers are the the sapsuckers in the genus Sphyrapicus.

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Cactus Wren (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus)

Cactus wren. Image © Glenn Seplak

Cactus wrens are fairly large, conspicuous birds with a loud, monotonous, churring call.  They are easily recognized by their heavily streaked and spotted plumage.  They have a long white eye stripe, buff belly, dense black spots on the upper breast, black and white streaks and spots on the back and upper wings, and a long tail with black and white bars. Males and females look very similar.

Cactus wrens are residents of arid habitats in the southwestern United States and Mexico.  They are quite common in the city, especially in gardens and vacant lots with cacti and shrubs like jojoba and creosote.  They build large grass nests in cactus, especially chollas, shrubs or small trees.  They have a long, slender, slightly curved bill, and they feed mostly on insects on the ground or near the ground in cactus or shrubs.  Their foraging behavior is a lot of fun to watch as they peck at leaves, rummage through sticks, toss about small rocks, and peer into holes and crevices.  They can also often be seen dust-bathing.

Cactus wrens are members of the almost exclusively South and Middle American wren family, the Troglodytidae.  This group consists of about 80 species of mostly small, brown birds.  The closest relatives of the wrens are the gnatcatchers, Polioptilidae, a group of small grey birds occurring mostly in tropical and subtropical parts of the New World.  Other closely related families are the treecreepers (Certhiidae, with only one representative in North America, the Brown Creeper, Certhia americana) and nuthatches (Sittidae, distributed throughout the Northern Hemisphere).

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Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos)

Northern mockingbird. Images © Joby Joseph (left), Clinton & Charles Robertson (right).

Description coming soon!

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Curve-billed Thrasher (Toxostoma curvirostre)

Curve-billed Thrasher. Image © Al And Elaine Wilson

Description coming soon!

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European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

European starling. Images © Doug Greenberg

Description coming soon!

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Great-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus)

Female (left) and male (right) great-tailed grackle. Images © Al And Elaine Wilson

Description coming soon!

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Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

Male (left, image © Al And Elaine Wilson) and female (right, image © Henry T. McLin) Northern cardinal.

Description coming soon!

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Lesser Goldfinch (Carduelis psaltria)

Male (left, image © Dave McMullen) and female (right, image © Mike Cornwell) lesser goldfinch.

Description coming soon!

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House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus)

Male (left) and female (right) house finch. Images © Eric Bégin

Description coming soon!

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Verdin (Auriparus flaviceps)

Verdin. Image © Al And Elaine Wilson

Description coming soon!

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Information on the Internet

Page Information on the Internet

  • Tucson Bird Count  The Tucson Bird Count (TBC) is a cooperative project begun by members of Tucson's science, conservation, and birding communities. Each year, TBC volunteers (each on a morning of their choosing) collect data on the abundances and distributions of bird species from hundreds of sites in and around the Tucson area.
    • Tucson Bird ID Center. This page contains links to descriptions, photos, and sounds of many additional birds that can be found in Tucson.
  • Birds and their Songs  Arizona State University Ask a Biologist and Audubon Arizona.
  • Tucson Audubon Society  Resources for birding in southeast Arizona.
    • Dastardly Duos. A series of articles by Larry Liese about pairs of species that are difficult to separate in the field.
    • Urban Birds / Aves Urbanas. A series of brief articles describing convenient places to enjoy watching birds in the Tucson urban area.
  • Arizona Field Ornithologists  Arizona Field Ornithologists is an organization of birders and ornithologists dedicated to increasing the knowledge of the identification, status, and distribution of Arizona’s birdlife.
  • Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory (SABO)  The Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory (SABO) is a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of the birds of southeastern Arizona, their habitats and the diversity of species that share those habitats through research, monitoring and public education.
  • xeno-canto :: bird songs from tropical america  This site has lots of songs of birds occurring in southeast Arizona.
  • The Firefly Forest  A combination nature journal and species identification guide with photographs, stories, and information primarily about Tucson, Arizona and Sonoran Desert wildflowers, plants, birds, animals, and other wildlife, as well as many other related (and unrelated) things.
  • WildBird's Top 50 Birding Hotspots: Southeast Arizona  A page on the U.S. Geological Survey site.
  • Dove Detectives  A study of where doves and pigeons are seen in cities. Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
  • All About Birds  Comprehensive information about North American birds.

Portfolio Information on the Internet

  • Arthropods in Their Microhabitats  American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) Get ready for an ant's eye-view of the world. Students learn techniques for observing, identifying, and classifying arthropods within a microhabitat; they'll also learn how to trap specimens, and how to kill and preserve specimens for further study. Students apply these skills to their own field sites as part of a study of local biodiversity, finding out exactly how biodiverse is each microhabitat within their site, and graphing their findings.
  • Biodiversity Counts  Welcome to Biodiversity Counts! This special resource collection takes students into the field and engages them in life science research: the inventory of plants and arthropods outside their own backdoors. Resources in this collection include lesson plans, profiles of scientists and Museum staff, essays, and Web-based interactives that help students explore, analyze, and apply their field observations.
  • Ecology Explorers  Doing Science in Your Schoolyard. Part of Arizona State University's Global Institute for Sustainability


Phillips, A., J. Marshal, and G. Monson. 1964. The Birds of Arizona. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

Rappole, J. 2000. Birds of the Southwest: Arizona, New Mexico, Southern California, and Southern Nevada. Texas A&M University Press, College Station.

Taylor, R. C. 2005. A Birder's Guide to Southeast Arizona. American Birding Association (ABA), Inc.

Tucson Audubon Society. 2007. Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona. Tucson Audubon Society (TAS).

Learning Information

Page Learning Information

Portfolio Learning Information

Education Standards

State Education Standards

AZ State Standards for Science for the Arthropod Investigation

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AZ State Standards for Science for the Habitat Investigation

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About This Page

This page was developed as part of the project "New Strategies for Life Sciences Outreach in Arizona: Developing a Digital Library of Audio and Video Features in the Context of the Tree of Life Web Project" funded by the University of Arizona Technology and Research Initiative Fund.

Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC, USA

Correspondence regarding this page should be directed to Katja Schulz at

Page: Tree of Life Common Backyard Birds of Tucson, Arizona Authored by Katja Schulz. The TEXT of this page is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License - Version 3.0. Note that images and other media featured on this page are each governed by their own license, and they may or may not be available for reuse. Click on an image or a media link to access the media data window, which provides the relevant licensing information. For the general terms and conditions of ToL material reuse and redistribution, please see the Tree of Life Copyright Policies.

 Treehouses are authored by students, teachers, science enthusiasts, or professional scientists. Anyone can sign up as a treehouse contributor and share their knowledge and enthusiasm about organisms. Treehouse contributions are checked for general accuracy and quality by teachers and ToL editors, but they are not usually reviewed by expert scientists. If you spot an error, please get in touch with the author or the teacher. For more information about quality control of Tree of Life content, see Status of Tree of Life Pages.

About This Portfolio

Kimberly Franklin
University of Arizona

Lisa Schwartz
University of Arizona

Correspondence regarding this page should be directed to Kimberly Franklin at and Lisa Schwartz at

All Rights Reserved.

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