House Hunting Is a Prickly Affair in the Arizona Desert

In a mostly tree-free terrain, saguaros play host to woodpeckers and other cavity-nesting species.

This audio story is brought to you by BirdNote, a partner of the National Audubon Society. BirdNote episodes air daily on public radio stations nationwide.


This is BirdNote.

A large, tawny woodpecker undulates in flight, flashing golden underwings as it lands atop a tall cactus. The bird is a Gilded Flicker. And the cactus is a saguaro, the tall cactus with upswept arms emblematic of the Arizona desert.

In this arid landscape where cacti thrive but trees are scarce, woodpeckers rely on the saguaro for nesting. The Gilded Flicker and the Gila Woodpecker, species adapted to desert life, carve out nest cavities in living saguaros. Tall, old saguaros may be pocked with twenty or more nest holes, bearing witness to decades of woodpecker families.

The woodpeckers excavate a new nest every year, leaving the old, now empty cavities behind. But they don’t stay empty for long. Elf Owls, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls, Purple Martins, and Brown-crested Flycatchers all find the slightly used woodpecker cavities superb nest sites, protected by a spiny exterior. 

These majestic cacti are now protected by law in much of the Southwest, so that desert habitats and wildlife will not be deprived of an essential and iconic natural resource.

Today’s show brought to you by the Lufkin Family Foundation. For BirdNote, I’m Mary McCann.



Written by Bob Sundstrom

 Narrator: Mary McCann

Producer: John Kessler

Executive Producer: Chris Peterson

Bird sounds provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Glided Flicker 109052 recorded by G.A. Keller; Gila Woodpecker 45164 by G.A.Keller.; Elf Owl 40636 by G.A. Keller;

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl 105563 by G.A. Keller; Purple Martins by C.A. Sutherland; Brown-crested Flycatcher 105560 by G.A. Keller.

© 2011 Tune In to Nature.org        April 2011/2019    

ID# SotB-saguaro-01-2011-04-04   

“The views expressed in user comments do not reflect the views of Audubon. Audubon does not participate in political campaigns, nor do we support or oppose candidates.”