Spotting Sonoran Desert Wildlife

Where To Find Them

One of the hottest and most expansive deserts in North America, the Sonoran Desert covers 120,000 square miles of California, Arizona, and Mexico. This beautiful and varied landscape is brimming with a broad array of wondrous wildlife. The lucky visitor can see a great variety of creatures that have adapted to the desert’s climbing temperatures and scarcity of water. Among the creatures that call this desert home include tortoises, the Gila monster, rattlesnakes, coyotes, vultures, tarantulas, and many other rare and enthralling species. If you’re itching to get outdoors and see the desert fauna in its natural beautiful habitat, read on.

Where to View Wildlife

Ready to hit the desert, but not quite sure where to go? Why not start at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Saguaro National Park, the Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness, or by hiking the many mountains around Tucson?

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (2021 N. Kinney Rd., Tucson, AZ 85743) hosts walking paths through desert habitats that are home to over 230 live animal species. More than simply a museum, this location fuses zoo, garden, gallery, natural history, museum, and aquarium elements into one grand entity.

The Saguaro National Park (3693 S Old Spanish Rd Tucson, AZ 85730) offers camping as well as guided programs, junior ranger programs, and wilderness hiking opportunities. The national park lies on the edge of the Sonoran Desert, encompassing mountain districts that offer pine trees, cooler temperatures, and a broader variety of wildlife than one might expect from a typical desert environment. You can also expect a variety of beautiful wildflowers.

The Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness (Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness, Winkelman, AZ 85192) hosts over 200 species of birds, as well as many large mammals, fish, toads, and frogs. You can also find nearly 100 species of reptiles, making this canyon a cornucopia of wildlife sightseeing opportunities.
Mountain hiking in locations throughout the desert provides opportunities to view wildlife right in its own residence. From the sandy desert floor to the high-reaching mountain pines, explore the mountains of Santa Catalina, Rincon, Santa Rita, Tucson, and Tortolita, or take a hike on the Arizona National Scenic Trail.

Fearless Flyers

The Sonoran Desert is fluttering with gorgeous desert birds that fill the skies and speed along the sandy canyon floors. Here are six popular desert species for which to keep your eye out.

Anna's Hummingbird – This hummingbird species has beautiful males with metallic green backs and red heads and throats, and females with green backs and white throats with red dots on tail feather tips.

Elf Owl – This small owl has tuftless ears, gray/brown feathers, and pale, yellow eyes.

Gambel's Quail – This quail has a round body and black head plume. Males have a black face, neck, and breast patch.

Cactus Wren – This wren has white eye stripes behind each eye that extend towards its upper back. These wrens are a creamy brown color with a spotted brown and black throat and chest.

Gila Woodpecker – This woodpecker has a zebra-striped back, white wing patches, and a red cap of feathers on its head.

Roadrunner – This sprightly bird has dappled brown and white feathers, a bushy mohawk of black feathers, gangly legs, and a long tail and beak.

Cold-Blooded Creatures

Many insects and reptiles call the desert their home, ranging from small scorpions to the larger GIla monster. Here are six that you might find making their way across your path as you explore the hot landscape of the Sonoran Desert.

Scorpion – Scorpion has a five-segmented body, a stinger, and eight jointed legs.

Collared Lizard – This lizard has a pair of black collars around its neck, whitish bellies, and scales spanning from yellow and brown to bright green.

Desert Tortoise – Unmistakable, this tortoise has a domed shell up to 15 inches, and scaled front legs.


Diamondback Rattlesnake – This snake has a thick body with a triangular shaped head, and two dark lines running from its eyes to its jaws. It also sports diamond-shaped back patterns, and a rattler at the end of its tail.

Gila Monster – This reptile has a heavy body, a large head, small eyes, a short, chubby tail, and bright pink or orange and black bumpy skin. Steer clear — unlike every other reptile species in the U.S., Gila monsters are venomous!

Pepsis Wasp – Also known as a tarantula hawk, this wasp has a blue or black body, six long legs and antennae, and large, vibrant orange wings. This wasp has the most painful sting of any insect known to man.

Warm-Blooded Creatures

Even mammals find peace and serenity in these arid acres. Keep your eyes peeled for these enthralling creatures cavorting throughout the desert landscape.

Bobcat – The bobcat has a short bob-tail, black spots, long cheek hair, and black bars on in its legs and chest.

Gray Fox – The gray fox has a silvery back and face with red tinted legs and chest, and a white throat, belly, and interior legs. Its tail is black-tipped and lush.

Javelina – This mammal looks similar to a boar, and is covered with short coarse hair, short legs, a snout, and a lighter-colored collar of hair around its neck.

Kangaroo Rat – This rat has a gerbil-like appearance and long tail with big hind feet, a large head, and small ears. These rats are sandy-colored with a white belly.

Ringtail – This adorable yet shy mammal has a long tail with bands of white and black fur, large eyes and ears, short legs, and a lengthy grayish body.

Rock Squirrel – Rock squirrels are one of the largest members of the Scuridae family, growing to nearly a foot in length, not including their long, bushy tails which are nearly as long as their bodies.

Safety in the Desert

This unique desert comes with a high heat warning for its visitors. With summer temperatures routinely well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, heat preparation is no joking matter. According to the University of Arizona Health Sciences, heat is the number one weather-related killer in the nation. Drinking at least two liters of water is suggested for every hour you are outside in the elements.

1. One of the most important safety rules whenever you are traveling in extreme conditions—especially alone—is to tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back. Many lives have been lost in the wilderness for lack of exercising this rule.

2. If you are off-roading, make sure that your gas tank is full, and your vehicle is equipped for the terrain you are covering.

3. Listen to your body and bring sufficient water. It is very easy to get dehydrated unexpectedly. Drink water regularly to keep dehydration at bay.

4. Be prepared for emergencies. Bring medications with you, and have a first aid kit and flashlight on-hand.

5. Keep a watch on the sky for impending thunderstorms and keep out of dry washes to avoid being caught in a flash flood.

6. Wear boots and long pants in rattlesnake habitat. Rattlesnakes will typically flee instead of attack if they can, but you should still stay out of tall grass and weeds, stay on designated trails, and avoid hiking alone. If you are bitten, do not restrict the site via tourniquet or band, and do not try to suck out venom or otherwise treat the bite anecdotally. Wash the bite with soap and water, keep it below heart level, and find your way to medical attention immediately.

Whether on a wilderness canyon hike, in a living museum, or during a camping excursion with a beautiful National Park backdrop, the Sonoran Desert is a desert that’s everything but barren. It is home to a diverse and incredible range of wildlife. Take a trip into this surprisingly creature-lush landscape and experience all that this desert setting has to offer.

Contributed By: Melanie Sanders, of RE/Max Platinum Living, is the head of Sales at Aderra Condominiums. Melanie comes with 25 years of experience as an Associate Broker/Team Leader, specializing in New Homes and Model Home Sales. Melanie was the former Vice President and Designated Broker of DR Horton and Ryland Homes, running sales and marketing.


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