In the Verde Canyon, blue skies, scenic red-rock canyons and free-flowing waterways add up to perfect ingredients for a wilderness adventure. They also make an ideal recipe for a wildlife habitat. Since its inception in 1990, Verde Canyon Railroad has been a protector for many canyon creatures but, most specifically, American bald eagles and an abundance of Arizona raptors that call the train’s scenic wilderness route home. Built on tracks laid in 1912, the railroad has peacefully coexisted with native wildlife for more than 100 years.
As an active sponsor of Arizona Game and Fish’s “Eagle Watch” program, the historic train helps to support “Nest Watchers” who monitor viable eggs and active hatchlings. The watchers provide status reports, maintain vigilance against potential problems and assist in banding eaglets. These valuable volunteers have been crucial to the boost of eagle populating in Arizona. Due to nationwide programs like this, bald eagles were officially removed from endangered status in 2007.
In 2010 Verde Canyon Railroad added another layer to its support of Arizona bald eagles when it became a proud benefactor of Liberty Wildlife, a nonprofit wildlife rescue and rehabilitation facility. Recently relocated from Scottsdale to a brand-new expanded campus along the Salt River in Phoenix, Liberty Wildlife is a crucial resource for injured and orphaned animals. They average an intake of several thousand birds, reptiles and mammals each year with the vast majority being rehabilitated and returned to the wild. Animals that are unable to be released back into their natural habitat become permanent residents of Liberty’s educational program or foster-parent program, both of which enjoy great success.
Along Verde Canyon Railroad’s 20-mile wilderness route, the train follows the rare riparian ribbon where high desert meets the perennially-flowing Verde River. Dramatic cliff sides, towering red pinnacles and century-old Cottonwood trees make first-class nesting locations for both migrating and resident bald eagles. Primetime eagle season runs from November through March, with nesting eaglets generally fledging nests in May. In addition to our nation’s symbol, Verde Canyon also provides ideal habitat and nesting locations for Red-tail Hawks. Exceptional hunters, Red-tails are the most abundant hawks in North America and one of the few birds that prey on rattlesnakes. Their acrobatic “rattle snake dance” baits the snake into harmlessly striking the feathers of one wing. While the rattler is distracted the hawk snatches the outstretched snake behind the head with its sharp talons. “Kreee-eeer-ar! Kree-eeee-ar!”, the fierce cry of the Red-tail, is often used as a sound effect in movies and television for other raptors.
In addition to myriad hawk species (Cooper, Harris, Zone Tail, Mexican Black) and smaller falcons such as the American Kestrel, another dominant dweller of the Verde Canyon is the fearless Great Horned Owl, a predator that will take on animals much bigger than itself, including fellow raptors. However its favorite item on the menu is…skunk? How convenient for the Great Horned Owl that it has no sense of smell. How convenient that the nocturnal skunk’s striped back is marked very much like an airport landing strip, making it an easy nighttime target. These fierce hunters also have a very tender side. Great Horned Owls make some of the most devoted foster parents at Liberty Wildlife. Some foster moms have cared for as many as 30 orphaned owlets at a time. In the wild these owls average a lifespan of 15 years, and with double those years when in captivity that’s adds up to a LOT of foster babies nurtured and returned to the wild.
A wide and wild array of fine-feathered creatures live along the river and the rails of the Verde Canyon, surviving and thriving for generations, much to the enjoyment of train passengers who happen to catch a glimpse and a photo or two.
Verde Canyon Railroad’s rail line was once a treasured connection between the booming copper mines of Jerome and distant civilization. Today passengers relax in plush comfort as the train rumbles into this wild and scenic terrain, weaving a sinuous path as it follows the river’s edge. At Verde Canyon Railroad, it has always been about the journey of life, not the destination.