With monsoon season far in the rear-view mirror, I find myself a bit melancholic as we enter December in the Sky Islands. 

Pining over summer’s verdancy and its profuse wildlife and native flowers, however, is of no avail. I need a cure for the winter blues brought on by increasingly bleak local landscapes and their concurrent downturn in biodiversity. Enter winter’s weird wildlife: species that bring more than meets the eye to the natural history table. Veritable freaks of nature in some regards, sure to capture the imagination of the curious naturalist.

Number one might well be our red harvester ant (Pogonomyrmex barbatus). The second part of its scientific name is a not-so-vague allusion to the prowess of its stinger. While you are far more likely to run afoul of this large ant – often misidentified as a “fire ant” – during monsoon season, colonies are also active during warmer winter days. Either way, if you disturb the nest too much, you might well incur their stinging wrath. With venom more potent than that of some rattlesnakes, these ants should be given a rather wide berth. This is usually easily accomplished, as this species clears a large circular area of vegetation, thus creating a solar panel that absorbs heat and allows the colony to be active on otherwise cool days. 

The nest can contain over 10,000 workers – all sterile females. Each colony is governed by one large ant, the queen. She alone lays eggs, producing either the sterile female workers or reproductives – the winged kings and queens. These new “royalty” take flight in monsoon season, forming aerial mating swarms – don’t worry, they can’t sting – with the queens having to mate with several kings in order to form a new colony. The sperm from one type of king will help her produce workers, while that of the second will allow her to fabricate more reproductives. 

Since the kings die after mating, the queen alone founds the colony after purposely dropping her now useless wings. In a highly successful colony the queen may live for up to 30 years, using the original sperm from her kingly consorts to fertilize her eggs throughout her life. Weird enough for you?

Which brings us to the curious case of the verdin – a tiny bird with a yellow head and chestnut-colored shoulder patches. Perhaps the most notable aspect of verdins, however, is their nests. So pervasive are they, particularly in our mesquite woodlands and the Sonoran Desert, that it is the one nest you should get to know. They are globular-shaped affairs about the size and shape of a softball, generally placed near the end of a thorny branch. This affords the otherwise vulnerable birds a large degree of protection from would-be predators like loggerhead shrikes and coachwhip snakes.

A verdin peers out of its softball-sized nest. Photo by Vince Pinto

Not only do verdins raise broods in their nests, they often also roost there in non-breeding season. No doubt this aids them in thermoregulation through the colder months. 

Interestingly, other bird species will use the nest in winter to protect their diminutive bodies from becoming hypothermic as well. Black-tailed gnatcatchers – equally as small and vulnerable as the verdins themselves – may huddle together in such a nest. Some birds, such as Lucy’s warbler, may reproduce in old verdin nests. 

Nor are mammals completely reluctant to use the solid and warm abodes. Minuscule harvest mice may commandeer a nest, climbing the parent tree with ease in part due to their prehensile tail. Thus, a verdin nest becomes a serial housing project for various wildlife species, begging the question: do several different species ever pool their bodily warmth in a nest to help survive the night?

We have barely begun to peel the onion in terms of our more outlandish winter wildlife. Antelope jackrabbits and desert cottontails who eat their own feces to make caloric ends meet. Gray bird grasshoppers – the fifth largest species on the planet – who are closely related to the plague/swarming desert locusts of the Old World and which have periodically decimated parts of the Hawaiian Islands, where they were accidentally introduced in 1964. Toads in cold storage that spend most of the year underground in a covering of mucous, awaiting the monsoon. A long list of otherworldly and improbable wildlife sure to brighten any winter day. 

Vincent Pinto and his wife, Claudia, run RAVENS-WAY WILD JOURNEYS LLC, their Nature Adventure & Conservation organization devoted to protecting and promoting the unique biodiversity of the Sky Islands region. RWWJ offers a wide variety of private, custom-made courses, birding & biodiversity tours. Visit ravensnatureschool.org