Waterfowl, ducks, geese and shorebirds don’t come to mind when you think of Arizona. Cactus wrens, roadrunners, and quail are familiar birds that one finds in the deserts of Arizona. It was not too many years ago that Arizona’s rivers were still perennial and migratory birds of all kinds found Arizona a great place to rest while heading north or south for summers or winters. Many birds found Arizona just the ideal place to spend the winter and several stayed on year round.
Prior to the early 20th century central Arizona had five rivers in addition to many streams that flowed year round. The Verde, Salt, Gila, Santa Cruz and San Pedro rivers provided habitat for numerous plants, and animals and people including Native Americans such as the ancient Hohokam, Akimel and Tohono O’dham people. The water that was not used along these rivers eventually evaporated, recharged the aquifer or joined the Colorado River. Arizona was and still is a major part of the migratory bird Pacific Flyway.
By the mid-20th century most if not all of Arizona’s rivers had been dammed, diverted or drained by groundwater pumping. This water was allocated for agriculture, cities and industry including mining. Even though much of this water was being used there was still enough water to maintain many streams, rivers and wetlands, but not at the previous levels.
Agricultural runoff, canals/ditches and golf course lakes made up for some of the loss of original habitat. Fortunately for fish eating birds these waters provide fish and several kinds of invertebrates as a food source.
Traditionally agriculture uses most of Arizona’s water, but in doing so provides plenty of food, in the form of insects, greens and grains for migrating waterfowl and shorebirds. These birds consume some of the crops before harvest, but because of inefficiencies in harvesting techniques and fluctuations in commodity prices a lot of produce is left to spoil or compost on the fields.
Even with diminished water flows there are still habitats for wildlife. The rivers not only nourish plants, provide cover and food for animals they provide habitat for countless insects, mollusks and fish. All of which provide protein for many species of birds.
Today when visiting a wetland of any sort people are likely to encounter birds with different niches dependent upon resources related to water availability.
Killdeer are seen in the irrigated lawns of parks and golf courses, black-neck stilts, herons and egrets wading along the shore, ducks paddling in the open water and flying overhead, ospreys looking for fish and falcons hunting for birds are common sites in both natural and manmade wetlands.
Ranchers have made their contribution to waterfowl habitat by constructing stock tanks for their livestock. Today, in the Sonoran Desert National Monument’s Vekol Valley several large stock tanks built in the late 1940s and 1950s can be found holding enough water to provide habitat for waterfowl, shore birds, amphibians and numerous other species of plants and animals.
On 21 January 2012, FSDNM fieldtrip participants observed several Northern Shoveler Ducks and Killdeer (a common shore bird).
On 2 February 2008, nine members of the Arizona Field Ornithologists observed the following waterfowl and shore birds: Cinnamon Teal, Northern Shoveler Ducks, Ring-necked Ducks, Killdeer, Greater Yellowlegs and Wilson’s Snipe.
During the summer monsoon Great Blue Herons have been observed feeding on the desert toads found breeding in the Vekol stock tanks.
The Sonoran Desert is the most diverse desert on our planet. Add a little water its diversity increases dramatically. Let’s consider this diversity when we develop policies that affect the Sonoran Desert. Our descendants and the descendants of the plants and animals living there are depending upon us to do the right thing.