Episode 56 – THIS is a museum??

mu·se·um | \ myu̇-ˈzē-əm

Merriam-Webster dictionary definition: an institution devoted to the procurement, care, study, and display of objects of lasting interest or value

We spent a day this week at the Sonoran Desert Museum, which, while devoted to the preservation of objects of lasting value, has an interesting concept of what “objects” are. It’s really more like what we’d expect from a zoo/botanical garden than a traditional museum.

The grounds of the “museum” are untouched desert wilderness, with the exception of identification signs beside some of the vegetation, and the walking path itself with its warnings to stay ON the path. Although various rodents, coyotes, and javelinas might cross the path (mostly at night) apparently rattle snakes prefer to stay on the desert floor.

The site even incorporates a large living natural cave complete with dripping stalactites, along with a more traditional mineral exhibit.

We observed several animals native to this part of Arizona: pudgy javelinas, a feeding black bear, a majestic mountain lion (all pictured below),

plus well-camouflaged lizards, rattlesnakes (safely behind glass!), a pair of Mexican lobos (wolves)….

… and BIRDS!!!

Arizona is known for having lots of hummingbirds, which love to feed on cactus blooms, but it’s hard to get photos of them in the wild. Not only are they tiny and fast, but it’s really hard to sneak up on a cactus! An enclosure with available food and enough room to allow for these very territorial birds to maintain their own personal space makes for terrific photo ops. (That said, Ted has gotten a few pretty great pics as we walked along the Rillito River near where we are staying.)

Clockwise from top left: male Broad-billed Hummingbird; hummingbird taking flight (MAYBE a female Rufous); male Rufous Hummingbird; female Broad-billed, or maybe an Anna’s Hummingbird? They’re just so small!!

Not only is there a hummingbird pavilion, and a walk-through aviary, but we got to take in an absolutely amazing display of raptor free-flight. The magnificent Harris’s Hawks flew so low that the wind from their wings ruffled my hair! In addition, there was a gorgeous Gray Hawk (aka Mexican Goshawk), a stunningly beautiful male Barn Owl, and a Peregrine Falcon (the fastest member of the animal kingdom on earth, clocked at 240 mph/385 kph when diving downward on its prey). It was fascinating to hear about how these birds are trained using 100% positive reinforcement in an environment where they could fly away any time they want to – and yet they don’t!

Clockwise from top left: Gray Hawk perched; one of the hunting group of 5 Harris’s Hawk in full downward wing swoop; male Barn Owl coming in for a landing; Peregrine Falcon in flight (you can see the thin radio transponder wire above his tail, that allows him to be tracked if he decides to go exploring)

The Harris’s Hawks were particularly interesting because of the dynamics within their hunting groups. There is a real “pecking order” (pun intended). Groups range from 4 to 7 birds with the leader always being the female, who is also the biggest bird in the group. Next comes her mate (the alpha male), then the beta male, who is an unrelated bird; he lives and hunts with the group, but does not mate with the female unless the alpha male dies. The remaining birds are offspring of the matriarch. In this group, birds 4 and 5 were both males.

The pecking order is evident in who eats first (always the female and any fledglings), but also in how they perch: if there is more than one bird on a cactus or in a tree, the higher ranking bird always sits highest, and the others below it in their “order”. We watched as the beta male landed on a tall saguaro and was fairly quickly – but gently – moved off by the alpha male. Their handler told us that occasionally two or more of the males will tussle over a choice bit of food, but when they do, the female simply flies down and inserts herself between them. No further action needed. If only it were as easy for human moms!!

Once again, we learned something new by visiting a new place.

Bottom line: one of the liveliest “museums” we’ve ever visited!


  1. Nicely done, Rose. Interesting though about using the word “museum”… I notice that our local eco museum also incorporates the use of the word zoo – I guess to focus on the animal part of the museum (as opposed to art pieces that we normally associate with a “museum”.


    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Is that all you’ve got?  Been seeing all of Ted’s pictures and looking forward tò your write up. The pictures put your notes to shame.  C’mon Rosie, you are letting your end down!


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