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If You Can't Handle the Critters, You Don't Belong in the Desert

Updated on August 20, 2014

Being about our personal experiences living in the desert

We have lived in the "middle of nowhere" in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona for the past three decades. During that time, we have had some *ahem* interesting experiences. This is about our experiences with the various critters in the desert.

The photo below is a Javelina, Pecari tajacu. I have actually been so close to one, I could touch him. They frequently visit our property. This really got started one year when we had very little rain, and they were looking desperately for food. We had a family that would come around. At that time, I was feeding grain and seeds to the wild birds (and the ones we had liberated from our aviary). They would steal the grain. Whenever I saw them near the aviary, I knew they were stealing. So I would take the car down there and honk at them, and they would run around the corner of the barn. Since they were around so much, I decided I wanted some pictures. So I got some old banana peels (Javelina will eat almost anything), put them on the ground, sat down about 6 feet away, and waited. Four came, and I got lots of pictures. They ignored me. Not long after that, I was feeding the birds, and I turned around and looked, and there was a Javelina right next to me. He was waiting to steal the grain. I had a small metal bucket in my hand, so I whopped him on the nose with it, and he just kinda trotted off, in no real hurry. A few minutes later, he was heading in my direction again, so I started to walk toward him, and he sauntered off. They never stole any grain after that. I guess word travels fast.

One time, I was cleaning out the refrigerator, and I put a few things in a paper bag and went down to the best place to dispose of them, and when I got there, there were five Javelina sitting in a circle around the place. (Even though there is obviously a plural, lots of us just call them in the singular anyway.) They waited patiently until I had dumped the food, and then as I was walking off, they helped themselves. Now it is illegal to feed the wild animals. Not because of anything I did, but for some unknown reason. The people who lived across the wash from us used to feed them all the time, and maintained a drinking place, too.

Javelinas are peccaries. They are thought to resemble pigs, but there seems to be some confusion about that. The reason most people fear them is that they can tear into a person if they feel cornered or they think their babies are being threatened. I think one thing you learn about living in the desert is how to respect the wildlife, so you won't get hurt, and so they are approachable enough for good pictures.

Photos mine unless otherwise noted.


Unfortunately, bobcats are not nearly as willing to come around people. I think they can be dangerous, but I am not sure how much of a danger they are to an adult human. We have only seen one on the property once, and only my husband has seen it. It walked by right outside the window where he was sitting.

Some other people who live not too far away said that they see bobcats who come down to get water. They keep water out for the animals. It so happens we don't do that, mostly because water is scarce and expensive.

One night not long ago, I was over at the Sweetwater Wetlands, and I lost my glasses. There was a fellow there who wanted to strike up a conversation, and we got to talking, and I mentioned that I had lost my glasses. It was past sunset, but he said he would go looking for them. He was gone for the longest time. It was almost pitch dark when he returned. He hadn't found my glasses, but he DID see a rattlesnake and a bobcat. He had pictures of both. The bobcat was a full side view, completely filling the screen, and it was a wonderful shot. I told him I wished I had gone with him.

A few days later, I went back to see if I could find the bobcat. I have actually tried several times, because I know there is one living there, but I have had no such luck. My husband told me not to get too close to the bobcat. It didn't matter. All I saw was a rabbit, and he told me the bobcat wasn't there.

I presume people tend to fear bobcats because they could possibly attack. I suppose that's a small risk. I never worry about it. I go out into the yard at night and never worry about it.

This sounds too much like a fish story about the one that got away, so I think I should quit while I am ahead.

Update (October, 2012): a couple of days ago, I was off looking for an American Bittern that has been reported, and met up with another birder, and we spent a couple of hours looking for it, to no avail. While looking, I spotted two Bobcats in the brush. I got a somewhat lousy picture of one of them, the one that hadn't fully developed his spots yet. I think the bobcats basically told us that the Bittern was long gone. Either they scared him off, or they got him.


Coyotes are basically wild dogs. They can interbreed with domestic dogs. Some people are afraid of them, I imagine. I have seen them on our property a number of times. They are never interested in getting very close. Unless they are sick, they are not to be feared, at least not in my opinion.

Sometimes at night, we will hear the coyotes howling. We call that the "Howl-a-Lluia Chorus".


Cattle aren't native to Arizona. Some people have grazing permits with the federal government, so there are places where they roam freely, and the road you are driving is right through the area. I have found a number of places like that, and I often see cattle. They're not a danger except if they just happen to cross the road about the time you get there with your car. Running into one will mess up your car pretty good.


Deer probably fall into about the same category as cattle. They're not dangerous, and to make matters better, they are shy. However, as with cattle, if one gets in front of your car, it can make a mess of your car. I once was coming down out of Miller Canyon, and there was a car parked in the entrance to the road I was on. The front end was all mashed in. They had run into a deer. People in other parts of the country complain a lot about deer being a hazard on the road. I don't worry about them so much. My concern is elk crossing the interstate up by Flagstaff. Fortunately, I have been spared the problem of running into anything like that.

This is a Mule Deer, Odocoileus hemionus. We also have White-tailed Deer. I have seen both in the wild, both on our property, and elsewhere. On this occasion, I was hiking in Catalina State Park, and at the moment, I was alone. I came around the corner, and this deer was standing not eight feet away. I was afraid she would run off before I got a picture, but she didn't.


Squirrels aren't dangerous. They just can be a nuisance. We had a lot of problems with squirrels stealing the bird seed, so I got this feeder and put it on top of the aviary. What I didn't know is that this would prove no barrier to squirrels. They would empty it out in a couple of days. That gets expensive! On one occasion, a squirrel got so very interested in stealing seed that he got into the feeder and then couldn't get out. I took his picture, and then drove him a couple of miles away and let him go. We didn't have much of a problem for a few weeks.


Rattlesnakes have probably been the most concerning of all the large critters that we see on our property. I have no idea how many we have seen. We were concerned about them possibly biting the kids, rightly so, as it turns out. But more on that in a minute.

I took the photo on the right one day when I happened to be out in the yard with my camera. I had just finished doing something in the dog run, and walked out the gate and looked, and there he was, about ten feet away from me. Since I had my camera, I decided I would take his picture. Unfortunately, he wasn't nearly as interested in me as I was in him, and he quickly disappeared. I got maybe three shots. This was one of them.

We usually had two or three a summer. I have learned that when the weather is nice for me to hike, it's also nice for the rattlesnakes. I have also learned that you NEVER put your fingertips on the edge of a rock, above your eye level. We used to make the kids wear boots outside to protect them from being bitten.

One time, one of my daughters actually stepped over a rattlesnake. There was a group of us around, and we all saw it. But she didn't get bitten.

Another time, I was off videotaping a concert of string players from Germany, and it was intermission, and I turned my cell phone on. Just then I got a call from home. Our youngest son had been running behind the house at dusk. He wasn't wearing boots. He got bitten. It was pretty painful. We gave him herbs, and he healed, but it took several weeks for the pain to go away entirely.

Update, September, 2013. I saw a rattlesnake lying across the road last night. It was pitch dark. The snake was so long it stretched half the width of the street, which is wide enough for two cars to pass each other easily. I decided to see if I could get a picture. I used flash, but he was not all that close, and the picture was very dark. I may put it up later. I lightened it and increased contrast, so at least you can see the snake. Seeing rattlesnakes on the road is not that uncommon. I try to avoid hitting them if they're not too close to home. Let the neighbor worry about them! :)

Gila Monsters

Heloderma suspectum

Gila Monsters are the only poisonous lizards in Arizona. However, if you are behaving yourself, they are not much of a danger. They move slowly, and they have to bite onto a person and chew to get the venom into the person's flesh.

My husband saw a Gila Monster once, but I haven't seen one on our property yet.

Black Widow Spiders - Mating pair

Black Widows are poisonous, as most people know. We think my husband was bitten by a young one once, in the office. Spider venom is full of digestive enzymes, so they eat a hole in the flesh. We used herbal remedies to heal his bite.

This mating pair was in the room where we keep the computers. I had seen the female there for a number of days, and we figured we would spray her with something eventually. After the mating, she killed the male (we saw what was left of him) and a couple of days later, we went ahead and sprayed her. She didn't like it. That's OK. I didn't like her.

It wasn't the first time we had had one in residence, but that took care of the problem.


Click thumbnail to view full-size
Tarantula hawk. Isn't he pretty! They're supposed to have particularly nasty stings, but they've never threatened me. Found on Mount Lemmon.Found at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.Wasps are easily found near hummingbird feeders.This one is stealing the hummingbirds' sugar water.
Tarantula hawk. Isn't he pretty! They're supposed to have particularly nasty stings, but they've never threatened me. Found on Mount Lemmon.
Tarantula hawk. Isn't he pretty! They're supposed to have particularly nasty stings, but they've never threatened me. Found on Mount Lemmon.
Found at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
Found at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
Wasps are easily found near hummingbird feeders.
Wasps are easily found near hummingbird feeders.
This one is stealing the hummingbirds' sugar water.
This one is stealing the hummingbirds' sugar water.

We actually have many species. The big yellow ones are a problem. One time, we were out on an herb walk with a local herbalist, and someone stepped over the hole in the ground where some of these were nesting. They came swarming out. I got stung, if I recall correctly, four times, and our older daughter got stung seven times. She actually went into shock. I cut some prickly pear and sliced it, and put it on the stings. It takes the pain right out. But I made the mistake of not making the slice big enough, and as the venom spread, it went beyond the edges of the prickly pear, and so I had a ring of pain around a center that was free of pain. Interesting experience, that.

We had a nest of wasps hiding in one of the decorations on the house. There must have been a thousand of them in there. We called the exterminator, and he came out and fixed the problem. That was where I got the title for this Lens. While he was there, he said something that led me to suspect he was surprised I wasn't afraid. I told him, "If you can't handle the critters, you don't belong in the desert."

After that, we used to get a couple of wasps in the house, and they were coming through a couple of holes in the ceiling. So I plugged the holes. End of problem.

One wasp I have seen is most unusual. It is called a Red Velvet Ant. The abdomen is very round, not oblong, and covered with bright red fur. They have no wings. I don't know how much of a problem they are. Whenever I try to get a picture, they run away as fast as they can.

We also get these tiny red wasps. They are mild-mannered. I have been stung a couple of times, but it's not a big deal. But read on...


We get bark scorpions around here. They sting people, but the sting is usually not fatal. Some of the scorpions north of us are more dangerous.

I have been stung by a scorpion four times. The first time was when I reached into the barrel that had the grain for the goats. He was in there. The second and third times I was sound asleep in bed, and a scorpion got on the bed. I don't remember what the other occasion was.

I won't describe scorpion stings. Suffice it to say, they're not very pleasant. It takes a couple of days for them to clear up.

Kissing Bugs

Triatoma protracta

More properly known as Cone-nosed Beetles, these are a SERIOUS menace, in my opinion. They bite, usually at night, during dry summer, primarily, but they can bite any time. I have probably been bitten hundreds of times. Nowadays, they cause a painful welt. If you scratch, it will be worse. They also can cause an infection. The one I am familiar with is Staphylococcus aureus. I imagine they could cause other infections as well.

I have learned to control them so that I don't get bitten often. I usually keep an open cup with the liquid used in the Mosquito Cognito. This is a non-toxic substance that prevents biting insects from smelling human beings. I also put diatomaceous earth around on the floor by the bed and keep a terrycloth towel along the edge of the bed. They don't like to fly, and they don't like crossing terrycloth. And I put a dab of lavender oil in a few places. If I do all those things faithfully, I don't get bitten.

Fortunately for most people, these bugs don't infest most of the desert. There are just pockets of them. They breed in pack rats' nests. Another way of controlling them is to kill the pack rats. I hate to do it, but pack rats also pose another hazard. They can get into the ceiling and gnaw on the wiring. That's a fire hazard. So even though they are cute, we make sure they aren't living near the house.


Several years ago, we learned that Africanized bees had reached Arizona. Not long after that, we had a swarm of bees that came and settled under the eaves of the house right by the door to the carport. The carport doesn't have a roof yet. So we called an exterminator (like we had any other choices) who came out and took care of them. He was affable enough. The following year, we had another swarm come in and settle in practically the same place, so we called the same fellow again, and he came out and did some stuff, but it didn't work. So we asked him to come out again. When he arrived, he was angry. He wanted us to do some work on the house that neither of us is capable of doing. After he left, we got some information on a fellow who would use diatomaceous earth to take care of them. It worked. Not long after that, we had another swarm that came in and settled on the opposite end of the house, so we called him again. Again, he took care of it. That was the last trouble we had.

In the meantime, some of the kids and I decided to go on a hike to climb the peak, and we weren't going to use any trails. We got up a fair distance, and we were in a canyon, and I heard bees swarming in the canyon, so I said we better climb out of the canyon. Next thing I knew, I was in a field of large loose rocks, about the size of a baseball and up. While the kids were running around on them like a bunch of mountain goats, making me very nervous, I wasn't about to try that trick, so I said we were going home, and I scootched down the rocks, and we went home.

Later, we used the trail and got to the top.

I hear that the bees have interbred enough that the Africanized trait is attenuated, but in the meantime, there have been a lot of colony collapses. Honeybees are not native to the area anyway, and there are other stingless bees that normally pollinate the local plants. That won't help the rest of the country, though.

Brown Recluse Spiders

I have heard that there are Brown Recluse Spiders here, but I have never seen one. I think that about takes care of the nasties and inconvenient animals around here.

The desert is a wonderful place, and you just have to use some common sense, and you will do just fine. If the critters worry you, live where it is a little more built up. But the wilderness here really is pretty much untamed.


It is said that centipedes don't sting, but rather that their bite is dirty so it is easy to get an infection from it. I am also told that their bite is painful.

I don't aim to find out.

The other day (early September, 2013), I found a centipede in the room, so I took his picture, and then took him outside. And just last night, we saw ANOTHER one, considerably larger, with black ends (unlike this one with the brown ends). He was being pretty skittish, and my husband tried to coax him into a plastic box so we could take him outside. Instead, he skittered off no telling where! I wasn't interested in spending the night in a bed in the same room, so I spent some time looking for him, and found him in a dead end place, so I put the plastic box on the floor, covering the opening to the hidey hole with the box, and then, by shining a flashlight on him, persuaded him he wanted to go elsewhere. And he went right into the plastic box. Instead of trying to photograph him because he was so active, I just took him outside and threw him down the hill. He skittered even further way into the dark.

This one was probably 4 inches long, and they get considerably longer.

I just hope the two of them don't have friends!

Update: well, I hoped in vain. I found another one, considerably smaller (2 inches) in the bathroom yesterday. I took his picture and let him go outside. I suspect we have an infestation somewhere. Funzies! I will have to do some research on the least toxic way of getting rid of them.


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