advertisement

To view wildlife at the Grand Canyon, bring a flashlight. Most desert animals are either nocturnal (active at night) or crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk). Lying low during the day allows them to avoid the powerful sun, thus cutting their water needs and enabling them to forage or hunt without overheating. All have specialized mechanisms to survive this harsh environment, and many, if provoked, can be as prickly as the plants around them.

Mammals

Bats -- The western pipestral is the Grand Canyon's most common bat. At sunset, you'll see them flutter above the rim, rising and falling as if on strings. Gray with black wings, they emit ultrasonic sounds that echo differently off of different objects. The bats then "read" the echoes to determine what they're approaching. If it's an insect, they know what to do. A single bat can eat 500 bugs in an hour.

Bighorn sheep -- If there's a hint of a foothold, a bighorn sheep will find it. Its hooves are hard and durable on the outside but soft and grippy underneath, a perfect design for steep, rocky terrain. You'll often hear them clattering before you spot their stocky, gray-brown bodies and white rumps. Six feet long, males can weigh 300 pounds. Their horns are coiled; females' are straight. Look for bighorn sheep in side canyons that have water, and sometimes on the rims.

Coyotes -- Coyotes will eat almost anything -- bugs, carrion, plants, rodents, and bird eggs included. Their versatile diet has helped them flourish, and you'll find them all around the canyon, but you must be alert in order to spot one. They look like lanky midsize dogs. But their noses are more sharply pointed, and their tails hang between their legs when they run. During summer, their bodies are tan, their bellies white, and their legs rust-colored. In winter, the ones on the rims turn mostly gray. If you camp during your visit, you'll probably hear their squeaky yips and howls at sunset. Look for them at dusk in North Rim meadows or at daybreak around the Tusayan garbage dumpsters.

Desert cottontails -- Common even in the canyon's most populated areas, these oval-eared rabbits feed on grasses, twigs, juniper berries, and leaves. Their bodies are mostly tan, but sometimes all you'll see is their white tails as they dash away from coyotes and bobcats.

Elk -- Merriam's elk, which were native to this area, were killed off by human hunters in the 1920s. Transplanted from Yellowstone, Roosevelt elk have flourished on the South Rim. Their bodies are tan, their heads and necks dark brown and shaggy. These long-legged, thick-bodied animals grow to enormous sizes: Bulls weigh as much as 1,000 pounds and stand up to 5 feet high at the shoulders; cows average 550 pounds. Unlike deer, which prefer bushes and shrubs, elk feed primarily on forest-floor grasses. Rather than migrate far, they'll dig through snow for forage. Every year, the bulls grow large racks of antlers, used to battle one another for cows. In fall, during mating season, bulls can be dangerously aggressive. At this time, you may hear their high-pitched "bugling." Herds of elk often roam the National Forest on the South Rim near Grandview Point. Elk are uncommon on the North Rim.

Mountain lions -- These solitary cats, whose legs act like powerful springs, will probably see you before you see them. Sightings around the canyon are rare, even among people who have spent their lives studying them. This isn't because the animals are small -- they grow up to 6 feet long and weigh 200 pounds, with cylindrical tails as long as 3 feet. Their coats are tawny everywhere except the chest and muzzle, which are white. Retractable claws let these graceful animals sprint across rocks and dig in on softer slopes -- bad news for deer and elk. Hunted almost to extinction in this area in the early 1900s, the mountain lion has recovered of late, especially on the North Rim, where more than 100 are believed to live.

Mule deer -- Mule deer are among the South Rim's most readily seen mammals. These tan or gray ungulates, which get as heavy as 200 pounds, are common everywhere in the park, including developed areas. They often summer on the rims, then move into the canyon or lower on the plateaus in winter, when their fur turns grayish-white. Every year, the bucks grow antlers, then shed them in March after battling other males during mating season. Mule deer feed on bushes and shrubs, but they especially like cliff rose. Active at night, they frequently dart in front of cars, making night driving risky.

Raccoons -- Recognizable by their black "bandit" masks, gray bodies, and black-striped tails, raccoons are fairly rare here because of the lack of water. Still, you may spot one.

Ringtails -- Ringtails, which are raccoon relatives, frequently raid campsites near the Colorado River. Their tails are rung with luminous white bands. Their ears are pink and mouselike, their bodies gray-brown. Ringtails are smart enough and dexterous enough to untie knots. If cornered, they may, like a skunk, spray foul-smelling mist. When not infiltrating campsites, they feed on mice and other small animals. Look for ringtails at night on the rafters in El Tovar Restaurant. (The hotel has tried unsuccessfully to move them.)

Squirrels -- The Kaibab and Aberts squirrels were once the same species sharing the same ponderosa pine forest. After the canyon separated the squirrels, subtle genetic differences between the groups took hold. Though both still have tufts of fur above their ears, the Kaibab squirrel, which lives only on the North Rim, is gray with a black underbelly and a white tail. The Aberts squirrel, on the South Rim, has a gray body, a reddish back, and a dark tail with white sides. Both still nest in and feed on the bark of ponderosa pines, and both are notoriously clueless (even by squirrel standards) around cars. Other squirrel species around here are the golden-mantled ground squirrels that look like oversize chipmunks, and the grayish-brown rock squirrels that have lost their natural fear of humans and often beg for handouts. Do not give them food.

Birds

Bald eagles -- It's hard to mistake a mature bald eagle for any other bird. Dark plumage, a white head and tail, and a yellow beak combine to give this bird, with its 6-foot wingspan, a look as distinctive as America itself. In winter, bald eagles often sit in trees along the river in the eastern canyon, where they like to fish for trout.

Common ravens -- These shiny blue-black birds soar like raptors above the rims -- when not walking like people around the campgrounds. They're big -- up to 27 inches long -- and smart. They've been known to unzip packs, open food containers, and team up to take trout from bald eagles. The common raven lives year-round on the South Rim and is the most frequently sighted large bird there.

Golden eagles -- Golden-brown from head to talon, this bird is commonly spotted soaring above the rims, its wings spanning 6 feet or more. Wings tucked, the golden eagle can dive at speeds approaching 100 mph. Although known to have killed fawns, they usually prefer smaller mammals. A golden eagle sometimes can be mistaken for an immature bald eagle.

Great horned owls -- This bird often perches in trees along the rims. Look for black circles around its eyes, puffy white feathers on its chest, and feathery tufts that resemble horns above its ears.

Peregrine falcons -- Identifiable by its gray back, black-and-white head, and pointed, sickle-shaped wings, this bird frequently preys on waterfowl, sometimes knocking them out of the air. Once endangered, the peregrine has benefited from the outlawing of the harmful pesticide DDT. The Grand Canyon is now home to the largest population of peregrines in the continental U.S.

Red-tailed hawks -- One of the more commonly seen raptors, the red-tailed hawk flies with its wings on a plane the way an eagle does, but has a smaller (4-ft.) wingspan. Identifiable by its white underside, reddish tail, brown head, and brown back, the red-tailed hawk will sometimes drop a snake from great heights to kill it.

Swifts and swallows -- Two small birds -- white-throated swifts and violet-green swallows -- commonly slice through the air above the rims, picking off bugs. The swift's black-and-white body is uniformly narrow from head to tail. Its wings, which curve back toward its tail, seem to alternate strokes as it flies. The swallow, which has a rounder body and green feathers on its back and head, flies more steadily than the swift.

Turkey vultures -- If you see a group of birds circling, their wings held in a "V" shape, rocking in the wind like unskilled hang-glider pilots, you're watching a group of turkey vultures. Up close, look for the dark plumage and bald red head. California condors sometimes follow turkey vultures because the vultures have a better sense of smell and can more easily locate carrion.

Wild turkeys -- Growing to 4 feet long, the males of this species are easiest to spot. They have bare blue heads, red wattles, and 6-inch-long feathered "beards" on their chests. The females are smaller and less colorful. They're common on both rims, but seen most often in North Rim meadows. Ancestral Puebloans once raised wild turkeys in pens.

Invertebrates

Black widows -- These spiders often spin their irregularly shaped, sticky webs in crevices in the Redwall Limestone (you'll only find them down in the warmer areas of the canyon, and not on the rims). Although they're most active at night, you can occasionally spy one in the shadows. Their large, round abdomens give them a unique appearance. Only the females, recognizable by the red hourglass shape under the abdomen, are poisonous, with bites that are extremely painful but seldom fatal.

Scorpions -- Like a crayfish, each scorpion has two pincers and a long tail that curls toward its head like a whip. At the end of the tail is a stinger. Of the two species commonly found in the canyon, the most numerous by far is the giant hairy scorpion. Three to four inches long, this tan-colored scorpion inflicts a bite that's usually no worse than a bee sting. The bark (or sculptured) scorpion is more dangerous. Up to 2 inches long and straw colored, it injects a neurotoxic venom much stronger than that of its larger counterpart. These bites are very painful and can be deadly in rare cases. The best way to see scorpions is to shine an ultraviolet light on the canyon floor at night -- in this light, they glow.

Reptiles

Chuckwallas -- Common in the lower parts of the canyon, chuckwallas look as if they've just completed a crash diet, leaving them with skin that's three sizes too big. When threatened, they inflate that loose skin, wedging themselves into rock crevices. From 11 to 16 inches long, chuckwallas have blackish heads and forelegs.

Collared lizards -- At the canyon's middle and lower elevations, you'll see a variety of collared lizards, which grow to 14 inches long and have big heads, long tails, and two black bands across their shoulders. Usually tan, black-collared lizards change shades when the temperature shifts. Western collared lizards are among the more colorful in the park, with blue, green, and yellow markings supplementing the black bands. These lizards are not the least bit shy around people, and are not dangerous. Sometimes, they'll stare you down for hours.

Rattlesnakes -- If something rattles at you below the rim, it's probably the Grand Canyon rattlesnake, the most common rattler here. Its pinkish skin with dark blotches blends well with the canyon's soil. Like other rattlers, it has a triangular head, heat-sensing pits between its eyes, and a rattle used to warn larger animals to stay away. To maintain an acceptable body temperature, this snake becomes active only when the ground temperature approaches 78°F (26°C). At other times, it's sluggish, perhaps sunning itself on a ledge or curling up under a rock pile or log. Though it's venomous, the Grand Canyon rattlesnake is more reluctant to bite than other rattlesnakes (other rattlesnake species are seldom seen here). They're often near water, where they prey on small rodents. Human bites are extremely rare in the canyon; nevertheless, avoid getting close and seek help immediately if bitten.

Short-horned lizards -- These lizards can be found sunning themselves or scurrying across the forest floors on the canyon rims. With horizontal spines on their heads and rows of barbs on their backs, these short, stout lizards look like tiny dinosaurs -- or "horny toads," as they're commonly called. They can squirt blood from their eyes at attackers from up to 3 feet away.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.