Thursday, June 16, 2011

Clever little devils

I've had hummingbird feeders for lots of years now - I love the feisty little suckers! I even put feeders out when I was RVing around the country, if I stayed somewhere for more than a couple days.

I learned, when I had my little house in the Tubac Foothills, to like the flat saucer
type of feeders best, because I was the only source of the sugary joy juice to be found, and lots of critters wanted it - bees, ants, woodpeckers, finches, oh, and hummingbirds! The saucer type of feeder keeps the sugar water below the level of the little flowers, so most birdies, other than the hummers with their long long tongues, can't reach it. It frustrated the bees, and they learned to leave the feeders alone, thankfully!

The normal feeders, with the jug of juice feeding down by gravity, keep the level of juice right up to the brim of the little flowers, so the bees and anything else can get at it.

Where I'm living now, we don't seem to have a bee problem, and lots of birdies were trying to use my saucer feeder, spilling more than they could drink, so I picked up a regular feeder for the rest of the mooches.

I thought at the time that the drinking holes were smaller than
usual, but the hummers didn't seem to have a problem, so I didn't think anything else of it. Until this morning when I went to refill the jug! Of the ten little yellow flowers on the red dish, three of them were missing! I guess the woodpeckers didn't think the drinking holes were adequate, so they yanked the little flowers off the feeder so they could get at the slightly larger holes! Pretty damned ingenious!!

I found one of the little yellow flowers down below the feeder in some of the lantana foliage. The other two are missing - I'm guessing they're in some little birdie's nest somewhere! Playthings for the baby birds! Teaching tools for when they're big enough to get into the hummingbird feeders themselves!

Kind of funny - one of the only things that concerned me when I picked this little mobile home p
ark to move into was that the House Rules state firmly that residents are not allowed to feed the birds - hummingbird feeders are OK, but not seed feeders. I thought I'd have to miss out on the pleasures of bird watching, bird songs and antics. Wrong! There are so many large trees and other plantings that the birds are in absolute control. Feeding them isn't necessary to bring them visiting!

Among the many large trees are a lot of big old saguaro cactus! And I do mean old. The saguaro is a magnificent unique cactus. I think everyone is familiar with the symbol of the Old West . . . they were in every western movie ever made, I suspect. The stories they could tell!

We have about 68 of the old beauties here in this park - by my last casual count. And they've been
here a loooong time. Because a ten year old saguaro might be only an inch and a half tall (read that again - ten years old and only an inch and a half tall!!), and they don't start growing arms until they are about 75 years old, and because most of the cactus here in the park have many many arms, we know they've been watching this city grow for decades - many for more than a century! A century!?! Some for 200 years. For some, that's back in cowboy and indian days!! For some, that's back to the very early days of our Republic!

These fascinating giants lead such an interesting life! Obviously it gets off to a slow start! Kind of a round-about way to tell its story - the saguaro is usually about 50 years old before it puts out its first flower - its first opportunity to reproduce. The flowers don't even look real - they are waxy and brilliant white and very popular with lots of critters, bees and birds and just about anything else that can reach the flower!

After the flower is pollinated, it forms a fruit which as it matures, produces upwards of two thousand tiny little black seeds nestled in a bright red fr

I was fortunate to t
ake part in a saguaro harvest sponsored by the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum here in Tucson, where we learned to gather and prepare saguaro fruits in the traditional O'odham manner. We were taught to make a harvesting pole made from the ribs of the giant cactus, then knock the fruit from the 15-50 foot tall cactus into a tiny little bucket under the guidance of our Tohono O'odham guides.

Once we wer
e finished collecting the fruit, we were shown how to use the ancient means of splitting the fruit open to reach the bright red interior - a pop-top from a beer can! We scooped the fruit into buckets, then some water was added and we reached in and squooshed it all around to break up the fruit. Almost no one in my particular group wanted to get all that red juice on their arms, so I was the one who had the most fun!

Then the juice is strained - the seeds are set aside to dry, tiny tiny seeds, and they are then ground into flour. The juice is boiled down to make a sweet thick syrup, which is then made into jellies and jams, and even booze.

We were lucky to find a couple fruit that had already started to dry - into a fabulous bright red sweet chewy treat!

Super experience!!!

Anyway, the fruit that aren't harvested, the majority by far, are enjoyed by birds and four-legged critters and they spread the seeds near and far. It's estimated that only 5 or 6 seeds of the 2000 in a fruit survive to become a baby cactus. Of those, almost none make it to maturity. The lucky babies are usually protected by trees and shrubs - called nurse plants. Most young cactus we see are growing right next to another tree, until they outlive their nurses and grow to their magnificent stature.

The point of this little lesson in botany is that once the cactus is an adult, it becomes home to many birds (hence, lots of birds here in the park!). Gila Woodpeckers and Flickers d
rill holes in the cactus, looking to build the perfect nest. Often they create several before they make 'the' choice. Others take advantage of their work. The cactus builds a hard shell around the cavernous holes the birds make, forming it a safe home for the nest and baby birdies.

It's lovely to walk the streets in late spring, early summer, and h
ear all the babies in the multitude of nests in the saguaros crying for dinner. They definitely keep their parents busy!

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