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Life in the hot desert isn’t easy; a lack of water, soaring temperatures, and scarce resources pose challenges that most animals wouldn’t be able to cope with. Yet, many species of birds have evolved remarkable adaptations to thrive in one of the most unforgiving habitats on Earth.
Join us as we explore some of the fascinating adaptations that allow these birds to survive in the heat of the desert.
Common Adaptations Among Desert Birds
In order to cope with the extreme temperatures of heat during the day and below freezing at night as well as a lack of rainfall, desert birds have a number of adaptations. These adaptations could be biological such as their specially developed kidneys or behavioral like their nesting habits, for example.
Coping with temperatures is different for birds since they naturally have a higher body temperature than other animals. With a body temperature way above 104°F (40°C), birds are more easily able to withstand high temperatures as they don’t need to start regulating their temperature until the surrounding air meets or exceeds it.
Kidneys are used to process waste and remove extra fluids from the body. However, removing too much extra fluid for desert birds would be deadly as they don’t have as much access to water. For this reason, their kidneys are specially designed to be more efficient, which results in the bird excreting much less moisture.
The structure of the kidneys is different from other birds in that they have more medullary cones and instead of excreting urea, they excrete uric acid, which does not need to be dissolved in water and therefore requires less moisture when leaving the body.
Being able to effectively regulate your body temperature in the desert is essential for survival, and birds have a few ingenious ways of doing this.
For example, the greater roadrunner has nasal glands which allow them to get rid of excess salt. On top of this, they have a mucus membrane in the cloaca that allows them to retain moisture.
Some birds use a process called gular fluttering for thermoregulation. This involves vibrating muscles in the throat which exposes them to the air and allows for better evaporation. What’s more, vibrating those muscles requires very little energy from the bird, so it’s an incredibly efficient way to stay cool.
When humans and other animals sweat, the moisture evaporates and this cools the body down. But birds are not able to do this, so some species, including the vulture, will pee or poop on their own legs. Bird feces contains a lot of moisture and when this evaporates, the bird can cool down. Gross, but it works!
Use Burrows or Nest Cavities
By adapting their behavior, birds have a much easier time surviving in the desert. For example, many species, like the greater roadrunner, will spend the hottest parts of the day resting in the shade. It’s also not uncommon to see birds like the Harris’s hawk finding shelter among the shady arms of the Saguaro cactus.
When it comes to nesting, these desert birds have some amazing innovations. Some will use hollowed-out cacti, such as the Gila woodpecker, while others, like the burrowing owl will hide out in the abandoned nests of ground squirrels.
Feed on Water-Rich Foods
Since there isn’t a lot of water in the desert, birds need to take the fluids from other sources and this is often from the foods that they eat.
Quite often, desert birds will take their hydration from plants, especially succulents, but they may also feed on fruits that contain a lot of moisture.
For the raptors that live in the desert, it’s easy to stay hydrated from their diet, which contains a lot of blood and body water from their prey.
During hot periods when water is even scarcer, a lot of desert birds will stop eating their usual diet of seeds and switch to insects that contain more moisture.
Examples of Hot Desert Birds
Despite the challenging conditions of the desert, there are many avian species to be found here. They each have their own special adaptations that help them survive the heat!
1. Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia)
Let’s start with the burrowing owl; a owl species that is found all over the Americas in various habitats including grasslands and deserts or any other open terrain. But for the purposes of this article, I’ll be concentrating on those that live in desert conditions.
These owls have brown feathers with white markings, no ear tufts, and very wide, bright eyes. They are a threatened species in their southern habitat in Mexico and are considered vulnerable in the northern part of their range.
As you may guess from their name, burrowing owls nest in burrows in the ground. They typically go for burrows that have already been excavated by other animals, but where these are not available, they’ll dig their own and this is a great way to keep out of the heat.
2. Greater Roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus)
The roadrunner may well be most famous as a cartoon, speeding around the desert trying to get away from Wile E Coyote. And it’s true that these are speedy birds that are able to run up to 20 mph (32 kmh); they’re considered to have the fastest running speed of any flying bird.
To keep cool in their desert habitat of Mexico and the southwestern United States, the greater roadrunner relies on thermoregulation. When it’s most hot, these birds will rest in the shade of desert plants and in summer, are only really active from sunrise until the middle of the morning.
While the bird is not able to sweat, it will still release moisture through panting or through its skin. However, there are times that the greater roadrunner needs to warm up, such as during those chilly desert nights when it’ll hide out in dense vegetation. The bird can also lower its body temperature to reduce energy during the night and in the morning, it will sunbathe to recover any lost heat.
3. Cactus Wren (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus)
The cactus wren is the state bird of Arizona but is found all over the southwest of the United States as well as in Mexico. This is a non-migratory species that lives in monogamous pairs. Because they live in the desert all year, they need to be able to handle the dry conditions, and they achieve this mainly through their diet.
These birds primarily feed on insects that contain enough water to sustain them, but they’ll also often pick at plants.
Cactus wrens are the largest species of wren in North America, and they take their name from the fact that they build their nests inside cacti. Not only does this give them protection from predators such as feral cats and snakes, but it is also an effective way to keep out of the heat.
4. Namaqua Sandgrouse (Pterocles namaqua)
The Namaqua sandgrouse can be found in southwestern parts of Africa and is a ground bird with short legs and brown plumage that grows to around 11 inches (28 cm).
Raising young in desert conditions is difficult, but the male Namaqua sandgrouse has specially adapted feathers on his chest that allow him to bring water back to the nest for the young.
Namaqua sandgrouses do need access to water as their diet mainly consists of seeds which is why they’re often found around water holes in the morning.
In order to remain cool, they use thermoregulation and engage in several behaviors such as regulating their periods of activity and huddling together.
5. Verdin (Auriparus flaviceps)
Found in the desert scrublands of the southwest United States and Mexico, the verdin is a species of penduline tit and a small bird that doesn’t get much bigger than 4 inches (11 cm).
These birds make the most of the seasons when it comes to nesting and will choose their nesting sites in accordance with prevailing winds. When temperatures are hotter, their nests will face the winds but when things cool down, they’ll build them in the opposite direction.
What’s more, the verdin can only be seen foraging during cooler parts of the day. As opposed to being active at certain times of the day, it appears that these birds will respond to the temperature when deciding when to look for food.
Other adaptations include a varied diet that consists of fruits, berries, and insects as well as nectar, all of which contain a lot of moisture.
6. Gila Woodpecker (Melanerpes uropygialis)
One of the best ways to stay cool in the desert is to find a sheltered place to nest, and that’s exactly what the gila woodpecker does. These birds will nest in a cactus which they will hollow out to lay their eggs. After they’ve done with the nest, other species such as the elf owl, will make use of the hole.
Gila woodpeckers are found in the Sonoran desert where they feast on an omnivorous diet that consists of insects, fruits, eggs, and nectar; all of which contain important moisture. Although they will drink water as well.
These birds have an interesting appearance. Both males and females have black and white markings along the back, and the males have a distinct red patch on the head.
7. Gambel’s Quail (Callipepla gambelii)
As far as desert birds go, Gambel’s quail is one of the most attractive. These sweet birds grow to around 11 inches (28 cm), and the males have rich-colored markings on the face. They’re found in the desert regions of the southwestern parts of America and are a non-migratory species that, while capable of flying, rarely do so.
The Gambel’s quail is very tolerant of hot environments, and that is because of its higher-than-usual body temperature. These birds have a body temperature of 104°F (40°C), but they can continue to conduct heat into the air up to 107°F (42°C), meaning it’s much more easily able to survive in desert conditions.
What’s more, these birds have a specially adapted diet that provides them with essential moisture. They obtain this from green foods which are not only high in moisture but also contain all the nutrients they need to survive.
8. Curve-Billed Thrasher (Toxostoma curvirostre)
The curve-billed thrasher is known for its bold personality. These birds are found in the southwestern portion of the United States, where it remains year-round and is the most common species of desert thrasher.
One of the primary ways that these birds obtain moisture is through their diet. When in season, they will feed on fruits that are filled with water as well as insects which also help to keep them hydrated in the dry desert conditions.
In addition to this, the curve-billed thrasher has an interesting way to keep cool. It will preen its feathers, smoothing them out to make them less insulting so it’s easier to release body heat.
9. Elf Owl (Micrathene whitneyi)
The elf owl is the smallest species of owl on the planet and only grows to around 5.5 inches (14 cm) as an adult. They have yellow eyes and white markings on their gray to brown feathers and are found in Mexico and the southwestern parts of the United States, including in the Sonoran desert.
Elf owls are well adapted to live in the desert and will nest in the abandoned hollows in cacti made by woodpeckers and other animals. This allows them to shelter from the heat and raise their young. If a predator should find the nest, these owls will play dead; another important survival adaptation.
Sadly, the elf owl is in decline and is listed as endangered in California. However, they’re pretty smart when it comes to food and will adapt their diet according to the season which is one of the ways they survive the conditions in the desert. By making the right diet choices of foods that are rich in moisture, elf owls are able to go long periods without actually drinking. They will even migrate when food sources run low.
10. LeConte’s Thrasher (Toxostoma lecontei)
The coloration of LeConte’s thrasher is ideal for its desert habitat as it helps it to camouflage in with its surroundings. These birds are found in the southwestern parts of the United States and Mexico. Interestingly, LeConte’s thrasher is a non-migratory species that spends most of its time on the ground, although it is able to fly.
These birds feed on a diet of insects that are rich in moisture and provide them with hydration in their arid homes. LeConte’s thrasher does not need to drink water and is able to conserve moisture as a special adaptation.
These birds were considered rare for a very long time as there were not many sightings owing to the barren land in which they live where humans rarely go. However, they are relatively abundant within their range, so are not considered vulnerable.
11. Gilded Flicker (Colaptes chrysoides)
A species of large woodpecker, the gilded flicker is found in the southwestern United States in both the Colorado and Sonoran deserts as well as in Mexico. However, there are four subspecies of this bird, and each has a slightly different range within these areas.
Since the temperatures here can get very extreme, the gilded flicker takes shelter from the heat by building its nest inside the saguaro cactus.
These birds are easily recognizable thanks to their brown coloration, with distinct black markings on the back and wings and the red patch on their cheeks. The species that live in the desert tend to be smaller than their northern counterparts, which is a common adaptation of desert birds.
12. Black-Throated Sparrow (Amphispiza bilineata)
Another bird found in the southwest of the United States and Mexico is the black-throated sparrow. These are beautiful birds with distinct white stripes along the face and head and shiny black plumage around the throat, hence its name.
The black-throated sparrow is able to survive for long periods without water and will obtain most of its hydration through its diet of insects and leaves. What’s more, they’re able to retain moisture in the body thanks to their efficient kidneys.
While these birds are very tolerant to heat, they will sometimes move further north in summer and remain in their breeding areas to the south in winter.
13. Costa’s Hummingbird (Calypte costae)
Hummingbirds are the smallest birds in the world and Costa’s hummingbird, with its stunning purple coloration on the head, weighs just 0.1 ounces (3 grams). These birds are found in Mexico and will migrate to the southwestern United States during breeding season.
So, how do they stay cool in these arid regions? For starters, a diet of nectar and insects ensures that these critters get enough moisture intake where there may not be a lot of rainfall. What’s more, Costa’s hummingbirds will migrate to coastal areas, including Baja, during the summer to avoid the extreme heat of the desert.
Not only this but, when things get chilly at night, these amazing birds are able to enter a state called torpor where their metabolism slows right down to keep them warm.
14. Phainopepla (Phainopepla nitens)
With a beautiful crest atop its head and shining feathers, the phainopepla is, without a doubt, one of the most attractive desert birds. It is found mainly in Mexico and the southern United States, but there are reports of individuals flying as far north as Ontario.
In order to cope with the heat, the phainopepla will simply leave and migrate to the Pacific coast to make the most of the cool sea breeze.
These birds feed heavily on the desert mistletoe berries, and it’s an important part of the desert ecosystem for this reason. While some animals will digest the seeds, the phainopepla has a specially adapted digestive system that lets the seeds pass through to aid in plant reproduction.
They’re clever birds too with the ability to mimic up to 12 other species. They nest in mesquite trees which help them to stay shaded from the heat, but since they only stay in the desert during fall and winter, temperatures are much lower.
15. Greater Hoopoe-Lark (Alaemon alaudipes)
Found across Northern Africa and around the Arabian peninsula, the greater hoopoe lark is well known for its clever defense strategy. If it is confronted by a predator, it will play dead in the hope that its pursuer will lose interest.
But this isn’t the only fascinating thing about this otherwise plain-looking bird. One of the ways that these birds keep their cool is by lowering their metabolic rate, which means using up less energy.
Not only this, but the greater hoopoe lark will also seek out shade during the hottest part of the day. According to research, it’s thought that this simple act could reduce moisture loss by up to 81%!
Effects of Climate Change on Desert Birds
Our desert birds are, without doubt, adapted to handle extreme conditions that are hot and dry where other animals would struggle to survive. However, there is a limit to what these adaptations can do, and with climate change causing temperatures to rise, this isn’t necessarily something these birds can handle.
Because of the effects of climate change, it’s thought that the number of bird species in the Mojave desert has halved in the last 100 years. This is a problem that continues and while many avian species are attempting to adapt, the severe lack of water just isn’t helping. Yes, plenty of desert species are able to go long periods without water but birds do need access to it and with global warming, there just isn’t a sufficient amount. It’s a vicious circle because birds need more water for evaporative cooling but the rising temperatures mean there isn’t as much.
A lot of desert birds take the water from the foods that they eat, but they are finding things more of a challenge than ever before. It would appear that larger bird species and those that have an insect-based diet are suffering the most as their food sources become fewer as a direct result of climate change.
While you might think that all desert life is being affected by climate change, it seems to be the birds that are faring the worst. According to studies, they are not adapting anywhere near as quickly or effectively as things like small mammals, so it’s vital that something is done to support them.
Fortunately, there are efforts in place to ensure the survival of the most vulnerable desert bird species. For example, in the Nevada desert, conservationists have planted more than 30,000 trees alongside the river in hopes of providing new riparian habitats for desert birds who are desperately in need of water. Along the Amargosa river, where these trees are being planted, it’s thought that there are around 250 bird species.
As quoted by one of the volunteers from this program in the harsh, dry desert, every bit of habitat counts (source.) Over the coming years, the same program is hoping to plant a total of 100,000 trees which should help desert bird species adapt to the rising temperatures more easily.