All My Critters… Part 1

Great and Small on the Preserve

Coyote

A member of the dog family, Canidae, desert coyotes weigh about 20 pounds as compared to their 50 pound cousins who live in the mountains. And because of the cooler temps in higher elevations, mountain coyotes have longer, darker hair and a bushier coat than the desert coyotes of the Coachella Valley Preserve  who are usually tan or gray with a black-tipped tail. (desertusa.com)

At night we look forward to hearing their quavering howls which in coyote language translates into, “I am here. This is my space. Females, you are welcome to follow my voice and join me, but males, you need to stay away. Please answer me to let me know where you are so we don’t have any unwanted conflicts.”

Sometimes we hear a series of short high-pitched yelps. This noise may be from young pups playing or a pack of coyotes arguing or celebrating.

Coyotes will bark when protecting their den of pups or protecting the prey they just killed.

Canis latrans is the scientific name for coyotes and it means “barking dog.” I think our dog Casey was part coyote. (We miss you love-love dog… I hope you felt how much we loved you! We rescued you and you protected us.)

Very rarely will you hear coyotes huff. This subdued noise is reserved for calling to their pups. (desertusa.com)

Coyotes, of course, have excellent hearing for detecting prey and avoiding danger. The movement and position of their ears communicate mood and rank.

Coyotes roam alone, in pairs, or in a pack. Like dogs, they mark their territory with urine. And they can easily leap over an 8 foot fence or wall.

In desert habitats, coyotes live and hunt within a range of 10-12 square miles. In the mountains they have both a summer and winter range as heavy snows drive them to lower elevations. (desertusa.com)

Hunting both day and night, coyotes exist on a varied diet of mice, rats, rabbits, ground squirrels, insects, lizards, and the fruits and berries of wild plants. (desertusa.com)

On the Coachella Valley Preserve they enjoy the fallen palm fruit from the California Fan Palm trees in the autumn and winter.

northamericantrees.com

Coyote mating season begins in January when several lone males gather around one female with the hopes of courtship. The female, however, will form a relationship with only one of them. The new couple will then travel together for awhile before mating.

The female bears one litter of 3-9 pups a year in April or May when food is abundant. The gestation period is 63-65 days. (desertusa.com)

courtesy of Ken Mix, co-host on the Preserve

courtesy of Ken Mix, co-host on the Preserve

The pups are born blind. Their eyes open when they are 14-days-old and a few days later, they emerge from the natal den. (desertusa.com)

Coyotes prepare their dens in rocky crevices, under dense thickets, or by digging a burrow in the ground. After the pups are weaned the new family abandons the den but often return to it from year to year. (coyotesmarts.org)

courtesy of Ken Mix, co-host on the Preserve

Pups suckle for 5-7 weeks and start eating semi-solid food after 3 weeks. Dad supports his new family with regurgitated food, but Mom does not allow him to come all the way into the den. (desertusa.com)

courtesy of Ken Mix, co-host on the Preserve

The pups live and play in the den for 6-10 weeks until Mom starts taking them out with her to hunt as a group. Gradually the family disbands. By autumn the pups are old enough to hunt alone and before their first birthday coyote pups are ready to go their own way to stake out their own territory. (desertusa.com)

courtesy of Ken Mix, co-host on the Preserve

courtesy of Ken Mix, co-host on the Preserve


Pocket Gopher

This elusive little guy popped up one day so unexpectedly between the Palm House Visitor Center and the restrooms. First he dug a tunnel and plugged it up from underneath with a large mound of sand and dirt. Then within minutes, he suddenly opened another hole behind the original mound (a patio maybe?) and closed that hole. I was mesmerized so I stood still and waited. Sure enough, he emerged again, in front of the original mound (a front porch maybe?) and then escaped into one of its extensive underground tunnels, burying the opening once again.

Active all year round, these heavy-bodied animals measure about 9 inches long and weigh 6-8 ounces. Desert pocket gophers have very small ears and eyes, a short naked tail and large forelimbs with long claws… (The better to dig with, my dear.) Their lips close behind large incisor teeth so that dirt doesn’t get in their mouths while they dig.

Pocket gophers are found naturally throughout the Sonoran Desert region where there are easily dug soils, such as those in riparian areas (wetlands), washes, and mesquite groves. (desertmuseum.org)

Pocket gophers are very shy and timid and seldom leave their underground tunnel system. They prefer to pull plants down into the tunnel from below. These animals are vegetarians and their diet consists of roots, tubers, grasses, green plants, and prickly pear cactus. Occasionally they will open a hole to allow some air exchange in the tunnel or to let tunnels dry out after heavy rains. (desertmuseum.org)

These gophers are solitary critters and only get together for mating once, maybe twice a year, with 2-6 young born 19 days later. In 3 months these youngsters are sexually mature. (desertmuseum.org)


Roadrunner

The Greater Roadrunner, Geococcyx californianus, is probably the most famous bird in the southwest, featured in folklore and cartoons (Beep! Beep!) and known by its long tail and shaggy appearance. It walks and runs on the ground up to 15 miles per hour, only flying when necessary.

Roadrunners eat insects including tarantulas, scorpions, and centipedes. They also catch lizards, snakes, mice, young ground squirrels, and small birds such as sparrows, hummingbirds, and young quail. (audubon.org)

According to allaboutbirds.org, a website created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, roadrunners kill rattlesnakes by pecking them repeatedly in the head, and from what I have gathered in my research, they most likely work in pairs with one roadrunner distracting the attention of the venomous viper. After snatching lizards, mice, and birds, roadrunners slam this larger prey against rocks or the ground multiple times to break down the bones and elongate the victim for easier swallowing.


Raven

The Common Raven, Corvus corax, is a massive, bird the size of a hawk, with a thick neck, shaggy throat feathers, and a heavy, dense, extremely powerful bill. This bird is entirely black including legs, eyes, and bill, and is often confused with a crow. But there are no crows in the Coachella Valley according to Anita K. Booth, an accredited bird biologist with Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology and the author of the bird guide, Birds of the Coachella Valley, published in 2009.

Typically foraging in pairs, these bold birds will work cooperatively to flush out prey and search for nests to eat the eggs, hatchlings, or nestlings. Ravens are opportunistic omnivores and will eat just about anything including insects, lizards, rodents, berries, and garbage. The majority of the diet of these scavengers, however, consists of carrion, the decaying body of dead animals. (audubon.org)

Noisy and playful, ravens will put on an aerobatic performance of sudden rolls,  wing-tucked dives, and playing with objects by dropping them and catching them in midair. (allaboutbirds.org)

A large group of ravens (known collectively as an unkindness) starts descending upon the California Fan Palms on the Oasis Preserve in October to eat the fresh palm fruit and catch whatever treats they find within the fronds. After all the visitors are gone, a a raven or two will strut through the parking lot looking for dropped bits of food left behind.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the reason there is a large group showing up in autumn is because these ravens are too young to start pairing up yet. This makes sense because as winter approaches spring, only one or two birds delight us with their antics.

Ravens and crows look a lot alike, but their are subtle differences.

Ravens are larger and make a low croaking sound. They usually travel in pairs, except when they are still young. Crows are more gregarious and favor the company of a larger group. Their call is more of a cawing sound.

A crow’s tail feathers are usually all the same length, so its tail opens like a fan. A raven has longer middle feathers in its tail, so it looks more like a wedge or a triangle. The crow has a smaller bill while the raven has a great big chunky-looking  beak. (birdnote.org, Ravens and Crows – Who’s Who?, adapted by Dominic Black from a piece by Frances Wood and Dennis Paulson)

Below is a picture of a crow, left, and a raven, right:

birdnote.org/Tom Grey

And finally, ravens are more graceful and agile in flight, with light wingbeats and occasional soaring. Crows often appear to be swimming across the sky. (allaboutbirds.org)


Costa’S hummingbird

The costa’s is the hummingbird I am most familiar with in the Coachella Valley. When perched and at rest, this bird is small, short, and stocky-looking. Like most birds, the female is blandly colored…

audubon.org/Joan Fox

…but when the light hits the male just right, his crown and throat shimmer in a vivid iridescence that appears bright blue or purple…

audubon.org/Joan Fox

The costa’s diet consists mostly of nectar and insects. While hovering, it extends its bill within the flower to extract the nectar. Insects are often caught midair or plucked from foliage. (audubon.org)

These hummingbirds nest in late winter and spring, with one male mating with several females. Nests are 2-8 feet above ground, placed on horizontal or diagonal branches of sparsely-leaved shrub or small trees. Sometimes the females build their nests in yucca or cactus. (audubon.org)

Female costa’s typically lay 2 white eggs per clutch, the total number of eggs laid in one nesting attempt. And according to Anita K. Booth’s Birds of the Coachella Valley published in 2009, the eggs are laid 1-3 days apart.

Incubation lasts between 14-23 days (Anita K. Booth) and 15-18 days (audubon.org).

Within 3 weeks, give or take a few days, the newly hatched youngsters are ready to take their first flight with Mom. (audubon.org)

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