Drab and Inconspicuous, Verdins Liven Up the Desert Anyway

My new house came with new pleasures. There are the breezes after sunset, which the cluster of houses in the old neighborhood kept from reaching my windows. Coyotes sing outside my window more nights than not. The baby quail did better in this neighborhood this year than they did in my last one last year.

I think the thing I'm enjoying most is the verdins. I never thought about verdins much before this year. I knew they existed, Latin name Auriparus flaviceps, ridiculously tiny songbirds not much more massive than the insects they eat, supposedly with bright yellow heads but that yellow washes out to drab in the bright desert sun.

That was before I had them next to my desk for most of the workday.

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I live alone now in the desert, at least as far as other humans are concerned. It is an odd mix of fulfilling solitude and erosive loneliness, punctuated by interruptions. I sometimes forget to leave the house for days on end, or remember too late to get groceries and content myself with a slow walk up the hill to the National Park boundary.

It was an unexpected change, prompted by February storms that suddenly made our old place here in Joshua Tree unlivable. First the ceiling in my home office fell in in a flood of filthy roof leak water and shredded fiberglass. Then my life did more or less the same. My household broken up, I settled on my own in a tiny house about nine miles farther into the Mojave Desert.

The room I'm using as an office in the new place has corner windows facing south. I put a hummingbird feeder next to one of them. The usual suspects showed up: black-chinned hummingbirds, of course. Ladderbacked woodpeckers, notorious thieves of hummingbird food. To my delight, a pair (at least) of Scott's orioles have stopped by to raid the feeder as well.

The first time I noticed a verdin on the feeder, I wasn't sure what it was. A bushtit, maybe, I thought. What else could be that small? And then I noticed the yellow head, the little reddish shoulder patches.

Turns out verdins will eat the dried sugar from hummingbird feeders. I had not known that.

They're very small. Four and a half inches long beak tip to tail end, adults weighing an average of six grams or so -- a tiny bit more than what a teaspoon of water weighs. From even a little distance, with their small size and their rapid movements, they become almost unidentifiable.

The noises they make help, once you get to know them: a single call note, occasionally with a three-note whistle. If you hear three notes coming from a tangle of thorn bushes in the desert, it's probably a verdin.

Verdins are desert birds. They don't migrate with the seasons, which means that at least in the Mojave, these tiny little things have to be able to withstand both searing heat and bone-chilling cold. That's hard enough for animals the size of humans. With an animal the size a tiny six-gram verdin, with a very low mass to surface area ratio, you might expect it to have a lot of trouble keeping its internal temperature steady.

The bird's nesting habits help in winter. The verdin is generally considered to be the only American member of the Remizidae, more commonly known as the penduline tit family. The family got its juvenile-humor-provoking name for the nests its members build, hanging pendulous from the branches of shrubs and trees.

Building nests is a bit of a complex process for verdins. The birds build one kind of nest for breeding and another, "roosting nests," for simple shelter. Breeding nests are begun by the males, who build a series of roughly spherical superstructures from thorn twigs and other material at hand. His lifelong mate will select one and start lining the inside with softer material, a middle liner of twigs, leaves, spider webs and moss, and a comfy inner lining of feathers and anything else soft the bird can find: shed fur, dryer lint, paper.

Breeding nests tend to be between five and seven inches in diameter, with an entrance hole about an inch wide. Winter roosting nests can be about as big. Summer roosting nests tend to be smaller, and presumably better ventilated.

Those winter roosting nests, nicely insulated against the chill, keep verdins relatively warm in the cold desert. So does the species' capacity for frenetic activity: studies have found that exercise plays an important role in keeping verdins' internal temperature up in winter.

In summer, the birds keep from overheating by sticking to the shade. That might be why I have so many hanging out by my hummingbird feeder, shaded by a solid porch roof. Even on a hot day, a verdin that sits in the shade uses one fifth the water it would were it to stay out in the sunshine. Those verdins without access to my porch will often find shade in the interior of a thorny bush, a mesquite or an acacia or something similar. When the temperature rises above 113°F, verdins will do all their foraging for insects, spiders, and (presumably) sugary dried stuff in deep shade.

Summer roosting nests also provide some shade, and there are a few studies that suggest verdins will build those summer nests oriented so that the opening faces the prevailing breeze. Other scientists have questioned whether that really happens often enough to be anything more than random chance. Nests built for summer use will often be hung from the northern, more shady side of a shrub, while winter nests will be hung in full sun.

A female verdin lines her nest | Photo: Evan Bornholtz/Flickr/Creative Commons License

In other words, verdin nest building involves a lot of decision-making, be it voluntary or hardwired. It's pretty remarkable, considering that larger desert birds like mourning doves seem to approach the same task by throwing a few sticks in a pile and sitting on it. But the verdin's small size makes such a slapdash approach far riskier. It's an indication of the remarkable lengths life will go to in order to survive in the desert.

And there are few animals better suited to surviving in the desert: the verdin essentially doesn't live anywhere else. A few apparent strays along the south coast occasionally spark birder visits to places like Border Field State Park and Bolsa Chica. For the most part, though, if you see a verdin you're in the desert and more than likely within shouting distance of a patch of thorn scrub.

Making your home in the desert is a lot harder than living on the coast, especially if your physical makeup limits your ability to roll with whatever punches the weather sends your way. But with a few twigs and a little bit of know-how verdins have turned that bug into a feature, and they live so well in the desert that they rarely bug out for theoretically more comfortable digs. It's an intriguing trait in a critter so drab and seemingly unimpressive.

They're welcome on my porch anytime.

Verdin eating a half mandarin in Joshua Tree | Photo: Chris Clarke

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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