The plants that grow in the deserts of the American Southwest are an important source of food for a number of creatures. In addition to insects like the red-winged grasshopper and harvester ant that depend on plants for all or part of the nourishment, many other species require plants in order to survive. Many mammals, birds and reptiles of the desert consume the plant life that grows there, with many getting all or most of their water from the plants they eat.
The jackrabbit is a consumer of desert plants, with the black-tailed jackrabbit and the antelope jackrabbit having extensive distribution in the American deserts. These members of the hare family will eat a variety of plants, from sedges and grasses to cactus in times of severe drought. The white-sided jackrabbit of southern portions of New Mexico is a less common hare that will look for sedges and grasses during its nocturnal journeys through the desert.
Coyotes will eat a little bit of everything, being omnivores, and this is especially true of those that call the desert regions home. The coyote often partakes of a plant called the coyote melon, a type of gourd that humans and most other animals shun. Coyotes will gladly eat, as they derive much moisture from this plant. Coyotes will also dine on berries and fruits as well as the pods of the mesquite tree, a type of legume that grows a very deep taproot to survive in the harsh desert environment.
Other desert mammals will have plants as all or a portion of its menu. These include the mule deer, the pronghorn antelope, the javelina, the kit fox and the coati. The collared peccary roves around in packs, and it will feast on prickly pear cactus. Many types of rodents, including the kangaroo rat and the pack rat, will consume parts of plants, with seeds high on their list of priorities.
Birds are integral cogs in the desert ecosystem, and although some, like the roadrunner, will subsist mainly on reptiles, many have plants as part of their diets. The cactus wren eats fruit and seeds to supplement the insects it catches, while the grasshopper sparrow will seek seeds in the winter months. The Gambel’s quail can make a meal out of almost any plant it encounters, eating parts of trees, shrubs and cacti, as well as forbs and grasses. The curve-billed thrasher is another type of bird that finds cacti berries and fruit edible.
Reptiles such as the desert box turtle will munch on plants like the prickly pear and others that have water content and nutritional value. The desert tortoise has the ability to devour dry forage, but much prefers to eat tasty wildflowers and grasses. When desert rainfall brings these plants to life, the desert tortoise will gladly walk around eating the flowers and any other new growth it can access. These reptiles will also eat cacti and their flowers, as well.