John Nichols knows his New Mexico birds. There’s a good list of birds seen in The Milagro Beanfield War, starting with the flock of nesting killdeer that feature in the opening scene of the book with one of the town’s historic figures, Cleofes Apodaca.

There are both literal and figurative buzzards (turkey vultures) and zopilotes (black vultures). There are, of course, the generic and unidentifiable owls and hummingbirds. There’s a cartoon roadrunner, and an old coot. But there are also gems:

Magpies hunkered atop flattened prairie dog carcasses along the shoulder.

What an image! It made me stop reading, laugh, with a little shudder of revulsion, and then wonder, “Are magpies omnivores? Do they really eat carrion?” They are, and they do. They are in the same family as jays and crows, so it’s not too surprising; I just hadn’t thought about it, or seen them frequently enough to realize it.

A tiny yellow-breasted warbler flitting about in the green mist of the left-hand tamarisk tree.

This casual, lovely image led me to some interesting side research–apparently the tamarisk (also commonly called the salt-cedar) is a non-native desert species of shrub or small tree that thrives in the American southwest. It is also at the heart of a ground water controversy that has spanned decades (including the 1970s when this book was published), involving non-native species and whether they are helpful or harmful to the environment in general and to ground water supplies in particular. Unfortunately, the warbler in the quote is lovely but unidentifiable.

Little gray dipper birds flew up ahead, splashing through the water and disappearing in the deep places, walking along the bottom, and then popping up onto the rocks again.

While many of the birds in The Milagro Beanfield War are already on our list (though perhaps not for New Mexico), the American Dipper is a brand new one! It’s also one I’ve never seen.

There are a number of great descriptions of common nighthawks, too.

Then it was the nighthawks that astonished him, those beautiful falcon-winged owl-colored birds, dashing after insects, beeping in a raspy, loud monotone.

One of the characters raises a baby robin, despairing the whole time over the too-soon death he knows is coming; another accidentally wounds a raven and consequently spends an inordinate amount of time and effort trying to put it out of its misery, finally winding up biting its head off; a third has an unusual encounter with a pine siskin.

pine-siskinAs he spoke, a bird, a little pine siskin, flitted through the corral fence, zipping low to the ground, and for some reason did not register Carl’s bulk in its way. Carl never saw it coming, either, and when the hapless bird banged head-on into his ear he gave a startled yelp, tumbling over sideways as if struck by a bullet. The siskin landed upside down several feet away, and lay on its back in the dust, flopping and kicking spastically while issuing pained chirrupy gurgles.

Nichols has a good time with the poor bird.

Suddenly the siskin righted itself and ruffled its feathers, shaking out the dust as it blinked a few times, and then with a hotshot rocketing little explosion it took off again, only to collide immediately with a corral post and bounce back into the dust knocked out cold.

The fact that Nichols still isn’t done with the poor bird makes me suspect the creature is a symbolic representation of one (or more) of the characters in the book (or possibly the town itself).

After a moment the intrepid siskin opened its eyes and shivered, coming back to life. When Bernabé figured it was in possession of all its faculties, including that of flight, he threw it up in the air, expecting that it would take off. Instead, the bird never once flapped a wing, plowing back to earth like a shot, causing a minuscule explosion of dust when it smacked into the dirt, breaking its neck.

HornedLark5Horned larks are very briefly mentioned when the Milagro locals escort Lord and Lady Elephant off Strawberry Mesa and up to the Colorado border.

Escorted by that caravan of trucks, they were driven, without a word, up through a crimson sunset and the occasional energetic wing bursts of horned larks, to the Colorado border.

Mountain BluebirdSeveral times (in addition to the magpie mentioned above), the bird images are oddly gruesome. There’s “a black-and-white shrike [which] sat on a fence post with a dead kangaroo rat dangling from under its talons,” plus the ill-fated, accidentally-shot, and subsequently-beheaded raven mentioned above. Then there is the nest of mountain bluebirds.

Three men, or rather the mossy, spider-webbed skeletons of three men, hung from a ceiling beam. In one skeleton’s pelvic area mountain bluebirds had built a nest, and in it the female bird, surrounded by peeping young, stared beadily at the startled boy.

In true casual birder fashion, Nichols mentions birds off-handedly, sometimes mentioning a very specific species (such as the horned lark or the cliff swallow), and sometimes mentioning a bird very generically. Despite all of the very specific names and descriptions, hummingbirds are mentioned numerous times throughout the book, but never once is a color or species given that would help to narrow it down among the dozen or so species that live in or migrate through New Mexico! He mentions red-winged blackbirds, yellow-headed blackbirds, and, frequently just says blackbirds–these generic ones, I’m pretty sure, are actually Brewer’s blackbirds, because that’s the full name of the common “plain” blackbird in the southwest. But generally speaking, they’re locally just called “blackbirds,” and that’s reflected in Nichols’ writing.

Another bird that’s mentioned frequently is the swallow. Or, I should say, birds (plural), because sometimes Nichols specifically says they’re cliff swallows (or even purple martins), but near the end of the book, he offers this description:

Swallows darted on and off the cliffsides far below, their burnished green backs and white tailspots flashing.

Violet-green_SwallowNow, by this time I knew that Nichols is pretty familiar with the birds of northern New Mexico, but I was a bit puzzled by the description–I didn’t know of any swallow with white tail spots. And, on looking through both my iBird app and the online Audubon guide, my confusion was confirmed–there isn’t a swallow with spots on the tail. There are several species with a white rump, however, which is probably what he means. Plus, the iridescence of many swallows means that the color of several species may be described as burnished green. The very common tree swallow can often look green rather than its usual metallic blue. In this case, though, I think Nichols means the violet-green swallow. The tree swallow’s rump is not one of the white ones–its underside is white, but its shiny blue-green back is not broken by any white. The violet-green swallow, however, has a definite metallic green back, with a mostly purple rump, but that rump has white spots on the side.

So, the list of birds for John Nichols’ The Milagro Beanfield War:

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