My first encounter with rufous hummingbirds was on the Bluebird Ranch in Northern Arizona. It was an unforgettable sight–dozens of orange hummingbirds zipping about in a large patch of pink bee plant.
When I met my wife-to-be, I had no idea she had close ties to a pioneer ranching family. A small town in south Texas was named after an ancestor—an early banker and judge. Mary’s Great Aunt Gertrude (known as Missy) and Great Uncle Bill owned 36,000 acres in Northern Arizona. You read that right…their ranch encompassed more than 65 square miles.
We were fortunate enough to visit them annually for about a decade before old age led to retirement…and I mean old age. Bill was still working in the branding pen well into his 80s. In those latter years, a cow stepped on him and, characteristically, he did not obtain medical treatment. He was badly hobbled, but he kept on working his cattle. It was poor land…with all of that acreage they ran fewer than 100 head most seasons.
Bill and Gertrude were frugal, losing money most years, but saving it during good times. I remember a visit from a neighbor who had a new truck, a large collection of Navajo Jewelry, and a swimming pool. Some years later that ranch was auctioned from the courthouse steps. Bill and Gertrude’s land eventually sold for millions. Bill’s daughter-in-law always called him Daddy-Bill. Her voice was loud and high-pitched, annoying actually, but there was an endearing ring to her cry of “Daddy-Bill.” She’d speak of him while the old cowboy sat at the end of their big oak table chewing slowly on his dinner—inevitably beef. Taciturn hardly describes Bill’s slow speech and the difficulty that it required to get a story started. I knew at the time, that I should be recording those rare stories…that I should take a leave of absence from my job and stay on the ranch for six months and write them all down. I will always regret not doing so.
One sad story was when a son, his namesake, died of smallpox. Bill had to hitch a wagon and take the body to town, a several-day task. As he was nearing the ranch on his return, he saw the smoke from an enormous fire. He feared the rest of his family had contracted the disease and died. Instead, some neighbors had arrived and gathered everything associated with young Billy and were burning it.
There were stories of the reattachment of a severed thumb, rescuing small children who had climbed to the top of a windmill and were unable to climb down. Many of the stories concerned their neighbors, the Navajo. Once while we were visiting, several had gone on a “bender” as Bill put it—including, Philip, who had worked for him for years. They arrived in a pickup and were out by a shed apparently stealing ranch equipment to “sell to keep the drunk going,” as Bill stated. Bill grabbed a pistol and hobbled out to them. Soon he returned and we saw the would-be thieves drive off empty-handed. I asked Bill if he’d been afraid, “Naw,” he said. “To them it is all a joke. If they’d stolen that stuff, the joke would have been on me. I caught ‘em, so the joke was on them!”
For Bill, it required many years of working for others to earn enough to buy his own ranch, and by then he was nearly 50. But, his own ranch was his dream. He accomplished it. He lived on that ranch for 40+ years. If you can find a copy of the 1971 USGS topographic map for the Tolapai Spring quadrangle. You will see it… there on the map–The Roberts Ranch, along with the Bluebird Well. Why the “Bluebird Well?” That was because Aunt Gertrude, or Missy, named the ranch for a huge flock of Mountain Bluebirds she spied the first time she saw the property. There was no house originally. The family slept in two old Navajo Hogans which were eventually stuccoed, wired for electricity, connected with a small bathroom and turned into cabins for guests—like my wife and I.
In contrast to Bill, Missy had an elegant manner. She always reminded us she was a city girl and that ranch life wasn’t her choice. Yet, here she was, nearly 60 miles from anything but a small village. Bill and Missy never had a telephone, relying on a radio for outside communication. Nonetheless, Missy had made her peace with ranch life as she was, perhaps, the most serene person I’ve ever known.
Deeply religious, she insisted that every visitor recite the “Lord’s Prayer” while holding hands around the dinner table. “And we always say, debts and debtors,” (not trespassers), she would remind us.
When I met Missy, she was nearly blind. Everything in the house had to be placed “just so” because she’d adapted to the specific locations. She still baked pies and made the best beef and bean meals possible. Her hearing was still good. She looked you in the eye during conversations and it was possible to be around her for hours without realizing she couldn’t see. For exercise, she would walk the ranch’s dirt road for about a mile each way. She always found and carried a stone which she deposited on a small pile, which became an impressive tower over time, where she turned back.
Missy had been city-bred, but even in her family, there were frontier stories. One of her earliest memories was living along the border and having to sleep on the roof of the local general store for a time. Her family and the rest of the townspeople climbed up with guns and pulled their ladders up after them. The reason? There were rumors Pancho Villa was in the area and might raid their town. It is easy to understand why I was so enthralled with “the ranch,” as we referred to it.
Having grown up in the Midwest, all I knew about ranching was from old TV shows. On my first visit, I noticed a bunch of planks floating in a stock tank. I asked Bill about them. “So the birds can get a drink,” he said. Sure enough, I often saw mountain bluebirds alight on the planks and drink their fill while floating about in the breeze.
And now I wonder, Bill was a cattleman. When he referred to himself, it was inevitably as an “old cowpuncher.” I never saw him so excited as when “Old Jethro,” an elderly bull he thought had died, suddenly emerged from the brush and walked by the ranch house. Bill moved as fast as his old legs would take him to get some fresh hay from the barn to feed that old bull.
Did Bill put those planks in the tanks to help the birds, or to keep birds that might have drowned from fouling the water for his cattle? I will believe the former because this was after all, “The Bluebird Ranch.”
This was high desert pinyon and juniper…not that great for birding but I do retain a few memories besides floating bluebirds. A roadrunner, well to the north of its usual range, once hopped onto the porch. The cries of Say’s Phoebe’s were ever-present—so much so, that I still can’t see or hear this common bird without thinking of the sandy hills near the ranch house. And, as noted above, here is where I saw my first rufous hummingbirds. That vision of dozens flitting about on a sunny morning in a field of pink remains one of my most unforgettable sights in a lifetime of nature watching.
Rufous hummingbird populations have dropped drastically since then. I can’t guess if such sights are still possible. Bill and Missy are gone. The ranch is gone. It became part of the Navajo/Hopi resettlement if you recall that controversy. I heard the ranch house and buildings were dismantled. I hope someone still fills the stock tanks with water…and planks.