The Saguaro cactus of the desert southwest are truly majestic giants. They can reach over 70 feet tall and often live to be 150 years. And while they may look like a tall version of any other green cactus, they have a secret.
The Gila Woodpecker and the Gilded Flicker discovered a way to make a home within the Saguaro. These two birds are able to peck through the tough outer skin into the flesh of the Saguaro. Once a hole has been excavated the Saguaro responds by lining the intrusion with a sap like material which hardens into a ‘scab’. This prevents any loss of water. These waterproof scabs are called Saguaro Boots. Once a Boot is excavated it makes an excellent home and resting place for many of our desert birds. Each Saguaro Boot is amazingly unique.
Boots are not created quickly. It can take a year after the hole has been excavated for the Saguaro to scab over the intrusion and create the Boot. So the bird that created the opening may not be the one that nests there a year or more later. While only a few birds can create a Boot, anything from finches to pygmy owls call them home.
Even rarer than the typical Boot made by birds is the flat disc like Boot created by desert moth caterpillars. These are often flat with only a tiny opening. Moth Boots become very jagged boots, with amazing angles.
When a Saguaro dies, or one of its arms falls off, it does not usually decompose quickly. Occasionally diseased Saguaros will perish and the flesh will rot quickly, but typically it can take years for it to decompose. During that time some of the Boots stay firmly attached to the skeletal structure, called ribs, of the Saguaro. And occasionally we are lucky enough to see a Boot with ribs still attached. Other Boots end up destroyed or buried.
No two Saguaro Boots are alike, and each Boot has unique features. The small Boots often have a cone like shape, but the holes left by the cactus ribs and the openings, make each one incomparable. Saguaro Boots take years to create, provide shelter for decades, and can stay intact long after the Saguaro has perished. They are one of the most extraordinary things in our desert. All of the saguaro boots and ribs I preserve have been collected on private land in Tucson, Arizona, after the saguaro has died.
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Take a look at the image of the woodpecker above, notice how the saguaro seems to be bulging around him. This piece is an example of what the inside structure of the saguaro boot area looks like. Some nests are even large enough to be home to pygmy owls.
On the Straight and Narrow
A large narrow boot that developed between the ribs of a saguaro. It's has a very large opening but it is not as deep as some large boots, offering less protection.
The developing fruits of this saguaro make a comfortable place to stop and preen
This saguaro is a mass of twisted arms
These amazing boots became attached when the saguaro created bark, or scar tissue, around the openings. And even more amazing, they survived the death of the saguaro not just in tact, but still attached to each other!
The ripened fruit of the saguaro provide food for the local bird population
Examples of large boots
Whale of a Good Time
These jagged, irregular boots, may have been created by the caterpillar of the cactus moth
The Jagged One
With straight arms and numerous boots this saguaro is home to many
One of the first saguaro blooms of the season
Examples of small boots
Saguaro ribs, roots, and branches
The tips of the saguaro broke off long ago, now it make a great perch
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