The Sonoran Desert is one of the largest stretches of protected arid ecosystems in the world, and its biological diversity is vast. If you ever pass through Tucson this is the best place for me to astonish guests! The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum will celebrate its fiftieth year this Labor Day having displayed living plants and animals of the Sonoran Desert, Southern California, Sonora and Baja California since 1952.
Spending a good week camped nearby our group of college science majors lived off of peanut butter sandwiches, oranges and oatmeal. (shh-- don’t tell; I threw in raisins to hide the weevils). This is defiantly the Disneyland for geologist, anthropologists, biologists or any other ‘ologist’ you could dream up. You could spend days here and by the time you think you’ve seen everything they’ve built something new to grok.
There is always a piece of nature anywhere you go in Tucson. Nature and wilderness are as close as anyplace else. It can be 110º in the shade and there are all of these amazing plants that survive while waiting months and months until it rains again. And so many colors of green, that’s another special thing about this desert. Many times people think that a desert is all brown but that’s not true. The plants here are every kind of green imaginable. There are bobcats, coyotes, and great horned owls that live in the city limits, Peregrine falcons take off from the city towers. There are birds everywhere, in the back alley or a vacant lot; there might be a pocket mouse or beetles feeding in cacti, or a pack rat nest, there is always something to see.
Back then most of the animals lived in cement and chain-linked cages. Since my college days they have built biomes of artificial rocks and boulders, and invented Invisinet, a net type fencing that out lines the animal’s enclosures and is nearly invisible. So much so that when Chras4 and I were there I thought a coyote was on the loose when he strolled by. It is so much better now to see the large enclosures, open to the sky and planted with desert vegetation to provide a comfortable and more natural habitat.
For years the Desert Museum has endeavored to be an environmentally perfect zoological site. They strive to save endangered animals, aiding the Mexican Grey Wolf (Canis lupus baileyi) breeding program, and researching ways to help with the survival of certain desert plants, fish (yes there are fish here, a most amazing story), reptiles, mammals and birds. The Mexican Grey wolf was common to the woodlands of the Sonoran mountain ranges. About a century ago the wolves were almost hunted to extinction.
“When wolves were eliminated in the early 1900’s,” says one Desert Museum scientist, “there was a whole different mind-set. The intent wasn’t to control them, but to eliminate them. But times have changed and now people see that the wolves are part of the ecosystem.
Today wolves roam the forests of eastern Arizona
and western New Mexico
because in 1983 a program was initiated to save and reintroduce it back into the wilderness. A captive breeding program to protect and build up the population of these wolves began from just seven specimens growing to 215. The first litter of Mexican wolves were born in 1978 at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum , by the spring 1992 the number of Mexican wolves stood at 42. On March 29, 1998, 11 Mexican wolves were released into the wild in Arizona. The area they were released into is called the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area
in the Apache-Sitgreaves
national forests. It's hoped that these are remote enough areas to avoid run-ins with people and cattle, but still many ranchers are very worried even though there are plenty of deer and elk for the wolves to hunt.
The wolves have been fitted with radio collars to keep track of where they are. As of January 2002 there were 33 with radio collars and about a dozen more without collars. Some have fit in very well in the wild roaming for miles and having pups. Others have died from natural causes, been hit by cars or shot.
The Desert Museum was founded by William H. Carr and Arthur N. Pack. Both were convinced of the importance of educating others about plants and animals and their relationships to one another and to mankind. Many times people will wonder what all the fuss is about building in a particular spot here in the desert. Sometimes there are ongoing discussions in the paper and on the news. On more than one occasion I have been told, “What’s the big deal? The animals will just move to another place.” While this may be true in some cases for highly adaptable animals, but not so in other cases like the pygmy owl. Some critters will only nest and breed in a particular plant and only at a certain height. In turn the plants they live in can only survive at a specific altitude; when these plants disappear sometimes this leads to the extinction of the animal. One of the most controversial endangered species in Tucson is this mild mannered “earless” owl. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have ears, but that it doesn’t have the feather tufts that are seen on more common owls like the screech owl. The pygmy owl is only six inches tall, barely weighing 2.5 ounces, but it’s tough enough to hunt and eat other birds, lizards and wee mammals. It’s flight is long and undulating like a shrike's with a call that is a long repetition of single or double dove like notes. A black patch at the side of its hind neck distinguishes it from most owls. Pygmy owls like to live in the holes of the giant saguaro and trees where they sometimes store food. The saguaro has such a slow growth rate of many decades one can see why the pygmy owl would disappear well before a saguaro was tall enough to nest in. Most recently this feathered creature has brought the construction of roads and schools to an abrupt halt near our home on the northwest side of Tucson.
George L. Mountain lion was the mascot for the museum. Arriving there in 1953 when the museum was only 6 months old he had been raised by people in California he was very friendly, purring ---very loudly. He enjoyed having his ears and chin scratched and when he was excited to see someone he knew he would say, "Yap,yap yap!” He was usually walked on a leash and visitors were allowed to pet him. Sometimes he would perform in his cage for visitors by holding on to his hind foot or tail and do somersaults.
When George passed away he was buried in the grounds. Today his gravestone can be found on the History Patio near the restaurant. There was a George the II and George the III was donated by The San Diego Zoo. George the IV’s sisters Honey and Georgette were the first to produce off spring at the Desert Museum in 1971.
There are summer camps, special classes and family activities galore. For more than three decades Hal Gras drove a station wagon called the Desert Ark to schools. He would bring along such animals as badgers, porcupines, snakes, ringtail cats and sometimes-special young animals, such as a baby mountain lion. Today the museum has the Desert Trek Outreach Program along with the Amigos del Desierto Program that focuses on bilingual and natural history educational activities. Classes visiting the museum on field trips receive suggestions for activities for both before and after their visits.
One special organization is The Coati Club for ages 6-12. For teens there is the Junior Docent Program where participants study desert ecology and provide useful services to the museum on a regular basis. This program grew out of a similar one led by Mr. Carr when a number of teens helped build paths and care for the animals. One of these teens at the age of 18 became the youngest curator of small animals there while two others received their Ph.D. degrees in biology and taught at the University of California.
The world-renowned museum is divided into sections, so you can easily head for your favorite animals or plants. Mine of course, is the Hummingbird Aviary which is at this time under construction. Sadly Chra4 and I couldn’t see it when she was here for a visit, but that didn’t stop us from seeing my second favorite stop and that is a Walk-in Aviary filled to the brim with cardinals, Gambel's quail, ducks, doves and one unusually brazen and smart aleck Black-Headed Oriole.
There is the Cactus Garden with over 140 species of desert fauna. Sagauro, cholla, beavertail and hedgehog to name a few catcus along with the beautiful Palo Verde trees with their green trunks and beautiful yellow flowers. You can see from the top or go underground and view the Cat Canyon with it’s musky smelling ocelots, as well as, margays, jaguarmundis and coatimundi. Visit the incredible Bighorn Sheep exhibit. Just imagine how incredible these majestic creatures are with their ability to climb rock faces that would puzzle the most well-equipped mountain climber. At the Riparian Habitat, otters and beavers can be observed through underwater glass panels.
There is more to see at the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum than I can describe. I haven't even mentioned the reptiles and invertebrates, the chuckwalla or the colorfully exquisite parrots that are found in this desert and south into Mexico.
Bring your camera, bring you field notes and binoculars. Most of all bring a lunch or plenty of money. A vegetarian burrito, small bag of Saguaro chips and soda cost me an astounding ten dollars!
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is a fantastic oasis in the desert with the Tucson Mountains with their Kitt Peak Observatory as a back drop. Located 15 miles outside the city in the dusty desert at 2021 N. Kinney Road, Tucson, AZ 85743-8918. To get there take the Speedway exit off of I-10 and turn west, rive though the breath taking Gates Pass and into the amazingly beautiful Saguaro National Monument West and follow the signs. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is also located very close to the historic Old Tucson Studios where movies such as Rio Bravo, Gunfight at the OK Corral, The Three Amigos , and more recently, Tombstone with Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer, were filmed there. The television series High Chaparral made its home at Old Tucson, as well as episodes of Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie and countless TV commercials.
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum :
Larson, Peggy. “Happy Birthday, Desert Museum.” Arizona Daily Star. 20 January 2002, p 3-4.
Robbins, Bruun, Zimm, Singer.A Guide to Field Identification, Birds of North America. Racine, Wisconsin.: Golden Press, 1966.