Birds of the California Desert

We are lucky in this great state of California to have many different environmental habitats, providing a rich variety of bird and wildlife species. Let’s cruise down to southern California for desert birds.

There are dozens and dozens of bird species in the California desert. Some species reside in a variety of habitats across the state, some migrate through the desert, and yet others who reside in the desert. We’ll focus on a few of the desert dwellers here.

To me, there’s no bird that says “desert” more than the roadrunner. The California species is the Greater roadrunner, Geococcyx californianus, in the cuckoo family.

Much like another desert dweller, the lizard, Greater roadrunners use thermoregulation to manage their bodies in extreme heat. They soak up the sun to get their energy by sunbathing. With wings apart and backs to the sun, they ruffle their feathers to expose their skin underneath to absorb the sun’s heat.

More info here: Greater Roadrunner Wikipedia

Roadrunners are very fast birds running at 20 mph (32 km/h) and more–they’re faster running than any other bird that flies (ostriches are faster, but don’t fly). Most of the time they are on the ground running, not flying, using their long tail as a rudder.

We saw these roadrunners in the Salton Sea years ago.

The phainopepla is another desert bird.

We often saw them flying into the desert mistletoe for berries, but capturing a photo proved tricky…they’re skittish.

Years ago we saw this female phainopepla, below, in Big Morongo Canyon Preserve outside of Palm Springs.

At the time we were hoping to get a photo of the glossy male, too, and finally did…but not until 12 years later when we returned to the California desert this month.

Interestingly, phainopeplas have a specialized mechanism in their gizzard to digest mistletoe berry skins.

A few other birds in the California desert include: Verdin, Gambel’s Quail, Abert’s Towhee and the Cactus Wren.

We also saw many Costa’s hummingbirds, below. I recently posted an essay with more photos of this glorious bird.

Link: Costa’s Hummingbird by Jet Eliot.

The black-throated sparrow is a hardy and dapper desert dweller, also referred to as the desert sparrow.

And lastly, the vermilion flycatcher, Pyrocephalus obscurus, made a bright appearance one day a few weeks ago when we were in Big Morongo Canyon Preserve. We had just gotten out of the car and were gearing up. With binoculars, I scanned the cottonwoods in the parking lot and was thrilled to see this bright red bird.

They do not winter in the desert. We learned from a local birder that this individual had just arrived that day.

I am always amazed at creatures who can live in the extreme desert temperatures. Thanks for joining me to celebrate these desert dwellers today.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.


73 thoughts on “Birds of the California Desert

  1. Enjoyed your post, especially the peep peep road runner. They’re so fascinating to watch. One thing I noticed is that dessert birds are mostly small or large and not so much medium size like a Robin. Curious if you guys think that or maybe I haven’t looked enough.

    • I really like the watching the roadrunners too, Bill–they’re so incredibly fast! I was glad to hear you’re thinking about desert birds, but no, desert birds come in all sizes. The phainopepla, for example, is a medium-sized bird. Thanks very much, Bill, always a pleasure.

  2. Lovely birds you captured in you desert adventure. I love roadrunners. We had a plague of roadrunners 20 odd years ago. They were 20 or so roadrunners on the property all the time for about a year, eating up all our lizards and little birds. When we worked the garden, a group of them would circle around us like velociraptors sizing us up and waiting to see what goodies we might dig up. We also had a grasshopper plague at the same time and I would see the roadrunners running through the tall grass, stirring up the grasshoppers, and catching as many as they could. When I walked out of the house in the morning, the roadrunners would be lined up on the roof of the house waiting for the sun to come up.

    • I SO loved hearing about the roadrunner and grasshopper plagues, Timothy. Fascinating. I think it says a lot that you still love roadrunners, even after their invasion on your property. Also, Ilike that you used the velociraptors in your story, as there is a dinosaur way about the roadrunners. Great story, my friend, thanks.

      • I think roadrunners are descendants of velociraptors. Unlike the 6-foot-tall velociraptors in Jurassic Park, the real ones were about the size of roadrunners. Roadrunners are very sassy and entertaining birds. They always size you up and look at you like they are deciding whether or not they can whack you on the ground a few times and have you for dinner. I thought about you when I saw a quail this morning. I didn’t get a photo. It ran under a bush before I could think about stopping and photographing it.

    • Thanks, Brad. I’m glad you enjoyed the Calif. desert birds. Great that you’ll be in the desert later this year. If you are anywhere near Joshua Tree NP or Palm Springs, I highly recommend Big Morongo Canyon Preserve. I’ll be doing a post on it soon.

  3. Oooh I especially loved the hummingbird and the bright red one! Great photos of such a fun variety of birds. I’ve seen roadrunners, though probably a different subspecies, but I don’t think I’ve seen any of the others.

  4. Wow, what luck seeing that Vermillion the very day it flew in! The images are wonderful, and the sightings are fantastic.
    I haven’t seen two of the birds you saw- the Sparrow, and Phainopepla. Thanks for sharing your desert birding sightings.

    • Really a pleasure to share “new” birds with you, Deborah, the black-throated sparrow and phainopepla. And yes, we felt very lucky to have seen the vermilion flycatcher there that day. We never saw it again after we set out into the park, so I’m glad I spotted it in the parking lot and that we took time to follow it around the cottonwoods there. Always a pleasure, Deborah.

    • I’m delighted you enjoyed the Calif. desert birds today, Janet. The desert is indeed so diverse and so beautiful. So much life in a place where you wouldn’t expect it to be. Thanks very much, really nice to see you.

  5. “phainopeplas have a specialized mechanism in their gizzard to digest mistletoe berry skins” Hard to imagine a more specific specialization, Jet. I suspect they are pretty good at spreading mistletoe as well. Like you, the roadrunner has always been a favorite of mine. The videos of them doing battle with rattle snakes are fascinating. –Curt

  6. Another fun and informative post! Can’t help but smile when seeing the roadrunners, such characters! Happy for you both that you finally saw one or two sought after birds – you’re very patient.
    Thanks, Jet! Meep meep.

    • Oh so fun to have you stop by, pc, thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and yes, you’re right, you can’t help but smile when you see a roadrunner. Meep meep!

  7. Interesting info on the roadrunner and I’m just so amazed that they posed for Athena – she must be a bird whisperer! I’m amazed that quail can survive in the desert – they don’t seem to be the brightest of birds! (at least our quail)

    • Yes, that the Athena could even get these photos of the roadrunners was terrific, you are right, Jan. When we went to the desert recently, in early March, they were not out anywhere, too cold. So these photos are from our earlier visit to the desert in 2010. Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks very much.

  8. Those Phainopepla images are amazing – look at those cap feathers, especially on the female. And I adore the Quails. And delightful Roadrunner images. Eat your heart out Wyl E Coyoye. I learned a lot from this post, had no idea that the true desert can nourish so many bird species. A wonderful read.

    • It is a real joy to share the birds of the Calif. desert with you, Babsje. I enjoyed your comment, thanks so much for your visit. With all your eye difficulties lately, I am honored that you used your precious eye time to read and enjoy this post.

      • Thanks for your kindness about my eyes – I wouldn’t have missed reading your post for anything. The photos as they appear to my wonky eyes have an impressionistic air – blurred in a very attractive way actually, and enjoyable!

    • I’m oh so glad you’ve seen the phainopepla, Craig. Yes, they look much like the cardinal, in size and shape, and they have a call like a cardinal, too. Many thanks for your visit.

  9. Wonderful photos as usual. The male phainopepla is quite something. We have most of these birds here as well and I’ve been fortunate enough to see and photograph a scarlet tanager as well. I’ve seen the sign for the Salton Sea but haven’t been and didn’t really know what it was. You’ve whet my interest.

  10. To say I am a big fan of the Roadrunner would probably be an understatement – it’s permanently inked on me as a clever totem to my running obsession and birding interest ha. Had the privilege of seeing a number of these in Vegas while we were there a few weeks ago, but I missed the Cactus Wren – well done capturing that. Very nice series of birds – note the phainopepla is in my top favorite birds and at the top of the list for me to misspell. Thanks for sharing.

    • Really enjoyed your comment, Brian. Great that you have a roadrunner on your skin! A running birder…great totem! And cooler looking than an ostrich. ha. I’m glad you had a chance to see some in LV. The cactus wrens are a treat, especially when they sing. We can never get enough cactus wrens, eh? But tricky to see. Glad you enjoyed the phainopepla (a spelling challenge to be sure) and other desert birds. Great thanks.

  11. Oh my goodness, not too lessen the awe these beings evoke, nor undermine the beauty of these photos and interesting facts, but, Jet, I have a serious problem. Nearly every time I see a cute bird, I want to pat it, just pat pat pat and make it boing, bounce, whatever, on its cute little legs!! My mom had 2 Robins, and my dad a Rock Pigeon (learned that from you), poor things had to live a life of love and bounciness.

    • Dawn Renee, I am chuckling from your fun comment. The birds are indeed sweet and lovable. I loved knowing that you learned Rock Pigeon from me and I love that you love the animals so much. Many thanks and cheers.

    • I am so very glad you found the birds of the Calif. desert fascinating, Frank. Birds are fascinating creatures…over 30 years I’ve been chasing birds and I still think they’re fascinating. And how very delightful that I can share the joy with you, Frank…thank you.

  12. Athena has a gift for getting the object to be still while photographing.
    How does she do that? Regardless, todays photos are fabulous of course.
    I remember seeing the Roadrunner once. Not sure where. But your photos
    are great! The whole post is great, as usual, loved it all Jet! hugs, Eddie

  13. Even without the binoculars I bet that vermillion flycatcher stood out like a tiny beacon among the trees. What a bright red bird!
    I liked the opening greater roadrunner and it’s natural history lesson. Thanks for sharing all these desert birds, Jet and Athena, species I’ll likely never see.

    • Yes, you’re right, Steve…that vermilion flycatcher did stand out like a tiny beacon. When I saw it the first time in my binoculars I gasped. So glad you enjoyed seeing and learning about the roadrunner, they are a very special bird. Thanks for visiting, always a pleasure.

  14. I love all these desert birds, though I’ve never gotten a good photo of any of them. I really missed my chance with the cactus wren in Big Bend. One decided to check out the inside of our van. I didn’t think to get his picture before I released him.

  15. I have a dear friend who lives on the western edge of the Texas hill country. She once had a road runner as a ‘pet.’ It roamed her place at will, but she kept it well fed, which ensured it hanging around. Her kids still tell stories about that bird: especially about their irritation with their mother, who fed the road runner steak while they were getting hamburger. They are delightful birds — and fast? Oh, my goodness. I often enough see them running into the brush in the hill country, but I’ve only once seen one standing still for a bit. Of course I had no camera with me!

    • Truly a delight to read about your friend and her roadrunner in the Texas hill country, Linda. You are a good storyteller. Thanks for bringing a smile to my face this morning.

  16. Pingback: Birds of the California Desert — Jet Eliot – Echoes in the Mist

  17. Enjoyed your narrative, Jet, and the excellent bird photos, of course. I saw all of those species mentioned on my Big Bend outing this past winter, all but the stunning little vermillion flycatcher & the Costa’s, which I hope to see on some future occasion. Thank you for another great reflection!

    • Thanks for your visit and kind words, Walt. I liked hearing that you saw these desert bird species in the deserts of TX, too…and glad I could share the vermilion f-c and Costa’s h-b to whet your appetite for the next desert adventure. A joy to share the desert birds with you, Walt, thank you.

  18. I enjoyed seeing all these lovely desert birds. Many were familiar from our time living in Arizona. I wondered why you posted a drawing of an ironing board at the end… until I figured out it was a roadrunner! :>)

    • Oh so nice to have you visiting today, Nan, thank you. How nice that the photos reminded you of some AZ species you once lived near. I so loved that roadrunner graphic, glad you enjoyed it too. It was on a post outside an old abandoned gas station. Lots of thanks and love to you….

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