I think that the most common perception of the desert is that it is a dead and inhospitable place. I’m sure there are places like that. Maybe the Atacama Desert in northern Chile would be nearly lifeless. It is one of the driest places on earth and has been dry for three million years. I’ve never been there so I can’t report from personal observation but I’ve read that in wet years it might get a half inch of rain. That’s dry — but there are plants and animals that have adapted and thrive there. The Atacama is located along the Pacific Ocean and sea fog brings some moisture and humidity to coastal areas. There are scorpions and a few lizards. Where there are plants, there are grasshoppers who are followed by birds. Flamingos and penguins live near the ocean. There is a species of mouse that lives in dry areas. If conditions are foggy along the coast there will be a few vicunas and guanacos, camel relatives, who survive by eating cactus flowers.
I moved to the desert about a year ago from the humid and almost jungle-like Midwest. I lived within sight of the Missouri River. The forests in the Missouri Ozarks are almost impenetrable in summer. That is man’s doing. The Ozarks used to be a savanna. When the pines and large hardwoods were clear cut they were replaced by a mix of hardwoods — oaks, hickories, choke cherry, and hackberry — that compete in the (now) thin soil and produce a scrawny, bramble and vine-choked, tick infested forest. Winter is when you can best get to know the Ozark forests. But I digress. My point is that there is a wild abundance of living things almost everywhere except the extremes of the polar regions.
My experience after moving to the New Mexico desert opened my eyes to the fecundity of it all. I knew little about the desert but I learned fast. My house was vacant for about two months before I moved in and I had to reclaim it from the local fauna. I had a roadrunner in the garage and various creatures in the house. We have a nasty biting centipede that gets several inches long that you don’t want to mess with. There was one in my bed the first night but it was dead…placed there by my Guardian Angel as a warning. “Be on your toes” was the message. My closest neighbor has had scorpions and a rattlesnake in the house. I’ve been lucky so far. I have an indoor cat that patrols the house so he might be discouraging squatters.
I have a love/hate relationship with ants. They love me and whatever I have and I hate them with a passion. They can live outside if they stay passive and invisible but they can’t come in the house. I’ve declared war on one ant colony that must be ten years old based on the size of the mound they built…maybe older. I assume they have galleries and meeting halls and nurseries going down at least four or five feet. These are not little innocent ants. These are predators based on what I see them carrying back to the nest. I go on an ant patrol every couple weeks and wipe out the ones that are workers or defending the nest but the Queen is way down inside and laughing at my feeble efforts.
When it rains we have a burst of life. Frogs and toads appear from nowhere for about three days and then they disappear. The same is true with gnats and mosquitoes. House flies will linger a few days longer. We had a few days of rain in the spring and that brought an invasion of grasshoppers. There were so many grasshoppers that they tracked them on weather radar. There were clouds of grasshoppers. These were little guys…not the three inchers that we have in the Midwest. A couple days after the grasshoppers arrived the lizards showed up. Dozens of lizards patrolled the yard gobbling up the grasshoppers. Next to arrive were the roadrunners who went chasing after the lizards. Roadrunners eat snakes so it is a good thing to have roadrunners around.
I had a snake in my garage. It was a harmless (to me) coachwhip snake. These are extremely fast snakes. They will outrun a man if chased. There are old timer stories of coachwhip snakes biting their own tale and forming a hoop and rolling along the ground like a bicycle tire. Don’t believe it. They don’t need to — they are fast enough. This guy was convinced that he was going to move into my garage. I occasionally have a mouse or two trying to live there so he was just doing what snakes do. But I had to dispatch him because he was too persistent and would not leave and it was an easy move from the garage to the house.
I have coyotes that come up to the back door. I can hear them singing at night. This year we have a super abundance of desert cottontail rabbits and jackrabbits. I expected the coyotes to keep them in check but we must not have enough coyotes. I guess those we have are well fed and happy. Next year we will have a lot more coyotes — that’s how the cycle works.
When I bought the house I noticed that there was a water feature — a koi pond with a little stream and waterfall. “How cute is that?” I thought. Well, a 1,500 gallon pond requires a lot of work. It turned out that the koi fish were extortionists and would eat everything in the pond if I didn’t feed them twice a day with two kinds of food. Koi fish can live 80 years. They have been described as the pigs of the fish world but some people really like them and will spend huge sums to acquire a single fancy koi. That made getting rid of them easy.
The pond also had sixteen goldfish of various colors and shapes. Goldfish are polite and respectful compared to koi and they don’t eat as much. This spring I noticed that the goldfish were playing tag. Pretty soon the game intensified and I realized it was spawning behavior. They spawned seven times that I noticed and the process was quite violent. Some of the fish were injured but all survived. Now I have several hundred baby goldfish.
Of course the pond isn’t a desert feature but I mention it because it is the only reliable water source for wildlife in my area. It is like a watering hole in the Serengeti. All of the animals come to the pond. When I walk out the front door there will always be something running away or flying away. The most notable visitors — because of their punctuality and numbers — are the doves. There are dozens of doves that come to the pond every night just after sunset. The rabbits are almost always there, one or two at a time. There are ground squirrels that hang out with the rabbits.
A Rock Squirrel built a den in the rocks near the waterfall and decorates it with twigs and small branches. If I remove the twigs and they are back the next morning. He is aggravated that I take his twigs so he brings pieces of cactus, from some distance away, and places cactus among the twigs to deter me from messing with them. That’s a very ingenious effort on his part.
I’ve been adopted by two boy quails. They follow me around whenever I go outside and call the whole time. One, I’ve named Buddy, is a Gambel’s Quail…the kind with the little droopy feather on its head. The other, named Sparky, is a Scaled Quail…with a little white topnotch. Both were unsuccessful in finding mates. Buddy had a girlfriend for about four hours one afternoon but she got a better offer. Sparky is in more serious trouble. He’s the only Scaled Quail I’ve seen in the area. Prospects are pretty slim for Sparky. Since they can’t find a mate they decided to adopt me. Lately Buddy has been scarce. I had to go on a trip for a week and he may have adopted someone else. At least that’s what I’m hoping. Sparky is still around. Some days I feel like Marlin Perkins and some days I feel like Beatrix Potter.
I’ve talked about the animals but the plants are almost as busy. Everything blooms in it’s own way. We had a huge germination and growth of a blue flowering plant that turned out to be Wild Heliotrope — if you like it — or Scorpion Weed — if you don’t like it. I liked it and let it grow. It carpeted the whole yard. My neighbor spent hours chopping it out. It didn’t last too long. The grasshoppers found it when they arrived and the blazing sun finished off the rest. The bees are kept very busy as are the hummingbirds. There is almost always something in bloom.
The sun is really the deciding factor in what lives or dies. It is unrelenting and will scorch anything that is unprotected. Even though it isn’t a hot day the sun will heat up anything that is exposed and the dryness will pull out any moisture. It is often cool in the shade on those days.
I visited the White Sands desert a few months ago and there is a notable amount of plant life and some small animal life. Predator animals, like coyotes and hawks, live on the edge of the desert. They patrol the dunes but uually don’t live there. So the desert is far from being a dead or inhospitable place. Things are always growing and reproducing. This is high desert, around 5,800 feet in elevation. The summer temperature only rarely exceeds 100 degrees. A lower and hotter place would have different plants and animals but there would be a similar array of wildlife.
Our monsoon season has started and has been going on for a week or so. We get a little bit of rain almost every day. Watching the storms is a form of entertainment for me. The lightning is spectacular and you can track storms for 100 miles. This year it arrived a little early and promises to be a good one….meaning lots of rain. My rain barrels are almost full. Apparently El Nino has a role in how our monsoons go so our weather is determined way out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. More wet weather will bring more life to the desert.