Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Birdwatching the Urban Jungle

One of my favorite things about walking, running, and biking around Tucson is sighting birds. This afternoon as I biked home from work, I spotted a great blue heron flapping along toward Himmel Park, its wing beats long and leisurely like a bird with nothing but time for enjoying the gorgeous March day. The same flicker was singing his heart out on the same tree where I noticed him this morning, which was not long after I saw a Gila woodpecker scaling a mesquite tree on University Boulevard. This was not an atypical number of sightings (and those were just the ones that stood out) during my 8-mile round trip bike commute, especially this time of year, when, despite relatively chilly nights, spring threatens every day to burst forth in all its gaudy desert glory.

For me, the pleasure of bird sightings in the city stems from my perpetual surprise at them. Tucson is, in some ways, a barren place, and I say that as someone who loves desert vegetation and loves this city. But we have approximately 1% tree canopy cover here, compared with a national average of 25%, and even though our desert trees may naturally create less cover than more lush vegetation elsewhere... that's still pretty pathetic. Our urban forest could definitely stand to be enhanced (for more on those efforts, check out Watershed Management Group and Trees for Tucson).

So it is always a surprise when, as I make my way through the exhaust-filled, pavement-covered, largely shade-free urban landscape, having nearly forgotten that I do in fact share this environment with something besides my fellow humans and their cars, the shocking red of a cardinal or a vermilion flycatcher literally stops me in my tracks. Or a red-tailed hawk alights on a telephone pole, fluffs its feathers, and screams its wildness across a deserted parking lot. These are the small miracles that transcend the ordinary workings of my day, that transport me, that keep me from looking down and hating the grime of the city, and instead looking up and feeling, briefly, the freedom of its winged inhabitants.  The birds do not judge, they just are.

Nature is so very resilient if we give it the slightest chance. There are many people working in Tucson - and in so many other places - to bring nature back into our urban spaces. It is vital to our health as humans and to our awareness of other species that we see nature as something that we are a part of, not something we go on an eco-vacation to see, but rather something that is present in our everyday urban lives, inseparable from us and impacted by us. The countless benefits of this extend to both ourselves and the species that we help to thrive, and I like to think that the biggest one is simply that the presence of nature can remind us, daily, if only for a moment, that we too can be wild and free.


  1. I live in a place that is full of houses. Like, there are not much open lands. Every morning, I go up to my terrace and enjoy the morning sun and the fun chirps of birds flying around. It's so much fun!

  2. Thanks for your comment, Jaky. It's those simple pleasures, isn't it?

    Epilogue: The universe must have known I wrote this post, because today when I got home from work, I walked into my backyard and saw a roadrunner! I've never seen a roadrunner anywhere near central Tucson, but there it was, cruising around the garden, alert and beautiful. I was a little worried about it - hopefully it will survive the cats and cars in the neighborhood! - but what a joyful sight after a long week.