This is breeding season for most species, from birds such as quails, mockingbirds, thrashers, cactus wrens, doves, roadrunners, red-tailed hawks and barn owls, to mammals including bobcats, coyotes, javelina, squirrels and pocket mice. Spring migration is also well underway, so resident bird species are joined by the likes of Bullocks’s orioles, ladder-backed woodpeckers and zone-tailed hawks.
As the spring days lengthen, warm air covers the desert floor and provides the cold-blooded creatures a nice toasty environment. An amazing diversity of snakes, lizards and even amphibians make their homes in the Sonoran Desert. Tree lizards, whiptails and spiny lizards are apparent to April’s desert hikers or visitors to gardens like Boyce Thompson Arboretum or Desert Botanical Garden.
Arizona has almost 50 species of snakes, many of them nocturnal. We have boas, colubrids such as the gopher and king snake, coral snakes, and of course the notorious pit vipers. These reptiles add to the desert diversity and keep the rodent population under control. Gopher snakes may resemble a rattlesnake to some, and even twitches its tail in dry leaves to pretend. But this gentle giant is harmless to humans, and is beneficial to our environment. Plus, he’s gorgeous.
Other, more bizarre species of reptiles are seen rarely or only in limited habitats. The chuckwalla is a prehistoric-looking character confined to rocky mountainous environs. This large lizard avoids predators by dropping into rocky crevices and inflating its loose skin to wedge tightly in place. Chuckwallas that live on the south side of South Mountain and feed on palo verde flowers have a large orange tail, while chucks in other areas have black tails.
In April, Gila monster young emerge from eggs laid the previous fall. The Gila monster grows quite large for a lizard, reaching a foot and a half in length. The lizard feeds on ground-nesting birds and the young of rodents and rabbits. Gila monsters dig two burrows, one for fall through spring and another deeper, cooler den for summer. They may spend 98% of their time in the protection offered by these shelters. When the lizards do come out, it’s for serious business such as gorging on any food they may find or mating. This is a beautiful and fascinating creature that is often maligned by the uninformed. The bite of a Gila monster is used in self-defense, but is venomous.