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BULLETnature archive
Nature Archive Photo
© Bruce D. Taubert

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Don't Mess With Me
In the animal kingdom, there are plenty of creatures more menacing than the cactus wren. That said, Arizona’s state bird isn’t about to be pushed around.

By Kendall Wright

Quiz anybody who grew up with Looney Tunes about the state bird of Arizona, and they'll likely guess the roadrunner. What state wouldn't want the speedy, crafty nemesis of Wile E. Coyote as its official representative? Well, Arizona, for one.

Instead of the Saturday morning stalwart, Arizona opted for the cactus wren. Marked with white stripes over its eyes of — they look like bushy, white eyebrows of — the brown- and cream-spotted bird is the largest wren in North America, as well as one of the most conspicuous.

Compared to other wrens living in Arizona, such as the canyon wren and house wren, both of which grow up to 13 centimeters in length, the cactus wren's 18- to 22-centimeter body towers in comparison. Not only is it distinctive in its size, but the state bird is also known for its harsh and high-pitched series of char, char, char notes, which have been compared to the sound of an old car starting up.

Although cactus wrens have never starred in a popular cartoon, they're still entertaining to watch, especially when they use their calls to scold cats, chatter at fledglings and warn away other birds from their nests. These little birds are fierce defenders of their territory, and they take no chances when it comes to protecting their delicately enclosed, football-shaped, grass nests from intruders. In many cases, they even go so far as to build one nest for roosting and another as a decoy. That's because they know what birds are capable of — cactus wrens themselves make a habit of destroying other species' nests and abducting their eggs.

Like so many other desert creatures, this curve-beaked warbler is a survivor, relying on nourishment from insects, spiders, scavenged fruit and, of course, stolen eggs. Its diet usually provides everything it needs, including liquids. Because of this unique adaptation, the cactus wren lives comfortably in the arid climate of the Sonoran Desert, and stands tall as the state bird of Arizona.

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