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Wild inhabitants of the Arizona desert

Updated on May 31, 2015

When driving through the Phoenix area and looking out the window, the eye is usually drawn to the large Saguaro cacti. Other than that, the scenery mostly appears arid, colorless, and lacking life. Sure, Phoenix lacks the lustrous green that is found in more humid climates during the warmer months, but the Sonoran desert exhibits quite a life to it, certainly more than what initially catches the eye. If you spend some time close to this desert you will discover that other than out-of-state transplants, the Phoenix area is home to a variety of animal residents, many of which may come as a complete surprise.

Arizona bark scorpion

A sting from one of these is much more painful that a bee sting.
A sting from one of these is much more painful that a bee sting. | Source

Those with a reputation

Prior to moving to Arizona, others had warned me of three menaces of the southwest: coyotes, scorpions, and rattlesnakes. Because of their bad reputation in the animal kingdom, it resulted in me feeling less than enthused about my new place of residence. I was under the impression that coyotes were carnivorous dogs who would attack my children and that scorpions and rattlesnakes could be lurking in my backyard eagerly waiting to inject me with their potent venom.

I do live just a street away from the wash or desert and have been pretty cautious since I’ve moved here. Since I do have young children and because Arizona does not partake in Daylight savings time, we generally retreat into our home earlier in the evening. Thus, I have not thoroughly experienced the dark side of the desert’s nocturnal wildlife.

As for coyotes, I can usually hear them as I sit outside on my porch after dinner. Yet, I also can hear my neighbors’ dogs calling out at sunset as well; it is often difficult to discern which one is responsible for the howling. And as for scorpions, many of my neighbors have boasted they have never been stung. Others have even informed me they haven’t seen one in ten years or so. We had the privilege of seeing one of these just last week – luckily we discovered the insect outside, rather than inside. A meet and greet with one of these in the middle of the night would be most disagreeable. Once my two-year-old son pointed it out (and I thank my lucky stars he did not pick it up) we used our special scorpion catchers, a.k.a salad tongs, and deposited it into a disposable plastic container. Apparently trying to squish or kill these on site could result in the release of a copious amount of invisible scorpion eggs if the insect is pregnant.

We haven’t encountered a rattlesnake up close and I’ll continue to keep me fingers crossed that we don’t. Ever.

The lesser known creatures

Aside from the desert pests that I have heard about and met, I’ve discovered that the Sonoran desert is home to many other animals that I didn’t anticipate seeing. While I definitely prefer some to others, I have appreciated the fact that the desert is a place of residence to so many different types of creatures. Below is a list of the some of the lesser known inhabitants of the Arizona desert:

  • Owls - The Sonoran desert is home to over ten different species of owls. While this mainly nocturnal animal may not be quite as visible during the day, it is not difficult to hear some hooting when sitting on your porch. When I first moved here and was going on my morning run, I initially thought many of my neighbors had large, ceramic owls placed on their roofs and balconies for décor- until one suddenly dived down right in front of me. I’ve since learned it is not uncommon to find owls perching on your house in the morning or at dusk. Because owls like to enjoy some sightseeing from one’s roof, I have been told to keep cats and small dogs inside; it is not unheard of for these owls to swoop down and carry off a beloved pet for a tasty snack. While I’ve been fortunate enough not to have witnessed this with my own pets, I have seen an owl take off with a cute, cottontail bunny that had been happily hopping along only seconds beforehand.

  • Cottontail rabbits - These little critters seem to be everywhere. Unfortunately, they are preyed upon by a wide variety of animals from owls, to snakes, to coyotes. Because females do have multiple liters a year, the cottontail population seems to be doing quite well despite being an easy, fast food for much of the desert animal kingdom.

The cottontail rabbit is preyed upon by many in the Sonoran desert.
The cottontail rabbit is preyed upon by many in the Sonoran desert. | Source
  • Bobcats – Bobcats are the most common wildcat found in Arizona. While their population is on the decline overall, due to human encroachment, they still can be seen in the washes and desert areas of Phoenix. It is not completely uncommon for people residing along the wash to find a stray bobcat in their backyard every now and then. Even though these cats aren’t huge, and generally weight less than 30 pounds, they should not be approached by humans; their claws can do some serious facial rearranging.

  • Hummingbirds – There are several species of hummingbirds that can be seen in southwestern Arizona – at any time of year. While some choose to reside longer than others, they are easily seen on a daily basis – unless you are near-sighted. These tiny birds gravitate to flowering shrubs and trees since they like the bright colors as well as the shade. If you wish to attract these types of birds incorporate such foliage into your landscaping, but be sure to leave plenty of room In between each plant. The space will allow them room to hover, as well as make them more visible to you.

  • Wild pigs – These dark-colored animals may appear to be wild pigs, but they are actually Javelina, an animal originating from South America. These animals aren’t quite as commonly seen as some of the other desert inhabitants. Rather, they are more likely to appear on the outskirts of Phoenix. Javelina aren’t carnivorous animals and may linger around your home if you provide them with water and table scraps. However, feeding these animals may not be wise since they can become frequent visitors. With coyotes and wildcats preying on these creatures, you probably wouldn’t want any predators lurking close by.


Javelina are not actually pigs.
Javelina are not actually pigs. | Source
  • Butterflies – Because of the warm temperatures and variety of flowers, butterflies can be seen in the Phoenix area year-round. With over 40 different butterfly species, the southwest is a great place to see wings of just about every color.

  • Burro – I couldn’t believe my ears the other day when I was at the park and heard the distinct, non-melodic sound of donkeys. Sure enough, when I looked down into the adjacent wash I saw a few burros trampling about as if they had wandered astray from a parade. Wild burros is another animal that may not be seen daily, but inhabit the Sonoran desert. These unexpected inhabitants have an interesting history to them: they played a key role during the era of gold mining in the late 1800s. These donkeys and burros were responsible for carrying the gear and equipment of gold miners. By the end of WWII the mines were pretty much shut down, and most of the prospectors simply let their burros venture off into the wild. Now many years later, descendants of these burros roam the desert and washes of Arizona in herds. Perhaps if you get close enough to them and can stand their raucous manner of vocalizing, they will tell you where gold can be found.

    If you are staying in the Phoenix area the pools and sunshine may seem like the main attraction, but if you are close to one of the many washes that run throughout Phoenix, I would encourage to take a minute to observe your surroundings. Immediately, you will probably take note of the array of birds gliding overhead. Observe a little longer, and you will notice many other animals moving about their neighborhood. The longer you stay in the Sonoran desert the more you will notice that the desert is anything but deserted.

Sonoran desert of Arizona


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