What rough beasts lurk in the orderly asphalt subdivisions and rocky foothills of the Greater Phoenix sprawl? From basic-bro coyotes to once-in-a-blue-moon beavers, this illustrated safari reveals communities of Valley fauna that have survived and, sometimes, thrived in the face of our century-long urban taming.
Illustrations by Nathalie Aall
It started a few years ago, with a fox.
At first, the kids and I didn’t believe my husband Ray when he insisted he saw a fox walking down our street. It had to be a neighbor’s cat. How could a fox show up, let alone survive, in our busy neighborhood – blocks from Arizona State University’s Tempe campus, constantly disrupted by fire trucks, light rail, freight trains and helicopters in one of the most urban parts of metro Phoenix?
And how did the slinky canine – which inhabits the entire region of the United States east of the Rocky Mountains, but has a much spottier presence in the Southwest – get here? If it wasn’t a snake or a lizard, we figured, no animal could possibly be native to these godforsaken parts.
But a few weeks later I saw it, too, darting in front of my headlights one evening – the pointed ears, the bushy tail, the sparkling fur. This was no cat.
In the years since, my family has played a game called Find the Fox – driving slowly, trying to snap a quick photo in the dark, considering a sighting a symbol of good luck. Extra good luck for spotting a pair, which has happened a couple of times, though I’ve lost track of the total number of fox appearances.
Foxes aren’t the only surprising encounters we’ve had. Not long ago, Ray bumped into what looked like a giant house cat when he was kayaking on Tempe Town Lake. When he saw the large, flat tail, he knew it was a beaver. And a couple years ago, he spotted several coyotes on our street. Then came the raccoons – three bandits scurrying from one yard to another in the dusk – and rumors of a great horned owl in a giant tree down the street. Earlier this month, someone in our neighborhood Facebook group reported seeing a skunk.
I figured there must be a slow exodus from the nearby Phoenix Zoo, like when the animals escaped from the Central Park Zoo in the movie Madagascar. It would only be a matter of time before a giraffe came lumbering down Mill Avenue, right?
Distantly related to pheasants and turkeys, the peafowl is known for the flamboyant feather train of the male peacock, which he uses to attact peahen mates. Dating in the Valley to at least the 1890s, the feral omnivores run wild in an East Phoenix neighborhood and are known to be fiercely territorial.
Although I was born and raised in metro Phoenix and have lived here pretty much my entire life, I had no idea that every one of those animals spotted in my neighborhood is native to the Valley. I was thinking like a tourist.
To be honest, I hadn’t given it a lot of thought at all. I’ve never been interested in hunting for scorpions with a black light. I avoid our garage, afraid of a close encounter with a black widow. And if you heard screams coming from the vicinity of Camelback Mountain one evening last summer, that was me after my daughter spotted a giant snake near my parents’ swimming pool, shiny and black in the glow from the outdoor movie projector.
North American Beaver
The world’s second-largest rodent, after the capybara, the beaver can weigh as much as 60 pounds despite its plant-based diet. As you might guess, beavers are found near permanent water sources.
Great Blue Heron
Although they primarily eat small fish, these winter visitors will feed on everything from rodents and reptiles to birds and mammals. The birds are found all over – particularly wetlands – and even in metro Phoenix. You might spot one near Tempe Town Lake.
I swear that snake was at least 8 feet long. Ray insists it was 4 feet – if that – and a California King, which he claims is completely harmless. The following week, a tiny version of that big black snake – its baby? – slithered into the pool and swam straight at me. You’ve never seen a human emerge from water so fast. I swore off swimming for the rest of the summer.
But I didn’t stay indoors. Like so many of us, I spent a lot of time at home in 2020, walking the alleys and side streets of the neighborhood where we’ve lived for more than two decades. For the first time, I got to know the landscape, including non-human residents beyond my standard poodle. I set out to make a comprehensive list of all the creatures you can see in the Valley.
There are far too many to stuff into a magazine story. The scientists and wildlife experts I spoke with estimate you can find about 20 kinds of mammals, 30 species of reptiles and 300 different types of birds native to metro Phoenix – as total numbers go, not so different from other urban areas across the country, although you aren’t likely to run into a rattlesnake in Brooklyn. And that doesn’t include insects or non-native creatures like feral peacocks and chihuahuas, the dreaded roof rat (which has my favorite Latin name, rattus rattus) or your neighbor’s pet desert tortoise.
Rescue groups, conservation nonprofits and academics study urban wildlife here, but to really get a feel for what’s roaming your neighborhood, the expert is Darren Julian, a wildlife specialist for Arizona Game & Fish who has focused on Central Arizona – particularly metro Phoenix – since 2006.
There’s a lot to see, Julian says. “The Phoenix area is a living, breathing research lab.”
TURNS OUT, THE GRAY FOX has been living in what is now called the Valley of the Sun for thousands of years.
According to researchers at the Pueblo Grande Museum in Phoenix, the region settled by the Hohokam was home to many of the creatures we find here now, including quail, black-tailed jackrabbits, ground squirrels, beavers, bobcats, black bears and mountain lions.
As the city sprawls deeper into the desert, the animals come closer – some closer than others.
Today, you are not likely to see a black bear strolling down Central Avenue. But they have been spotted in Anthem, on the northern outskirts of town, and on Christmas Day agents from Game & Fish captured a black bear hanging out near Sossaman and Baseline roads in Mesa. Bears in this region might have brown, blonde or red fur, but they are all biologically black bears, Julian says.
Mountain lion sightings are also rare, although Game & Fish gets plenty of calls from people convinced they’ve seen the giant cats in the city. Verification can be tough. In 2019, Julian got 145 calls about mountain lions; his department was able to verify only four. Sometimes he receives a photo of what is obviously a house cat and has to ask the caller, “Is the mountain lion hiding behind that cat?”
Julian has plenty of stories that do end with a wildlife sighting or rescue – some in the center of the city. “People don’t have to go far to see some spectacular animals in an urban environment,” he says.
An Ursus americanus sighting is rare, and typically occurs at the edges of the city – though they occasionally visit neighborhoods. The smallest bear in North America, a male might weigh in at 400 pounds. They eat cactus fruit and insects.
One of the best-known wild Phoenix beasts is the javelina, a not-so-distant cousin of European swine breeds, that was once known as a New World pig. They’re everywhere in North Scottsdale and Cave Creek, but sometimes venture deeper into the city. In fact, Game & Fish once removed a javelina that had made its way to the Social Security office near Seventh Avenue and Jefferson Street in Downtown Phoenix. Not far from there, a pair of peregrine falcons made their home on top of a Maricopa County administrative building. The birds are found all over the country, but it’s unusual to see them in such an intensely urban environment.
Also in the Central Valley, a friend of mine waits every year for great horned owls to nest and raise babies in a parking garage near her home. And that beaver my husband saw was no mirage; it was later trapped and relocated to a safer location. Ditto for another beaver found crawling into an irrigation canal.
These handsome raptors are found all over the world – notably, not in New Zealand – and in many parts of Arizona, including a cluster of them atop a Downtown Phoenix tower. Fast and lethal, they feed on smaller birds and, occasionally, large insects.
Metro Phoenix is home to many species of the four-winged insect, documented by Arizona State University professor Pierre Deviche on his website, azdragonfly.org. You can find them at Papago Park, Gilbert Water Ranch and Indian School Park.
All the aforementioned creatures, amazingly, are native to Central Arizona. The roster of non-native animals that were brought here and escaped into the wild – i.e. “feral” animals – is much less glitzy. There’s a neighborhood in East Phoenix just north of Thomas between 32nd and 36th streets that’s famously infested with chickens and peacocks, and local bird-watchers speak of colonies of peach-faced lovebirds that migrate throughout the Valley. Evidently, the parrot-like creatures were released en masse when a monsoon demolished an Apache Junction aviary in the 1980s. Instead of dying, they thrived in the Valley climate. Outside their native habitat in South Africa and Namibia, Phoenix is the only place in the world you can find them in the wild.
Beyond the pretty birds, the feral bench thins pretty quickly. Wild cats and dogs qualify, of course, but arguably the most successful non-native species in Phoenix is the black rat, or roof rat. Originating in Southeast Asia, the scavenger species swept across Europe during the Roman conquest, caused a plague or two, and finally hitched a ride to the New World, flourishing anywhere and everywhere it found unprotected food sources, i.e. your backyard orange tree.
Rats aside, most of the urban wildlife in the Valley is found near open spaces in spots like Paradise Valley, around South Mountain and on golf courses all over the city.
But if you have a bird feeder, or leave Meow Mix out, wildlife can show up at just about any location. That likely accounts for the animal activity around my neighborhood. When I learned that, I thought about the ladies one street over who have fed the outdoor cats every day for years – probably dating back to our first fox sighting.
The “New World pig” – actually, a distant cousin known formally as a peccary – is most likely to appear near washes and desert areas. Like pigs, they roll in mud to cool off and eat garbage, though more often they’ll dine on succulents, beans and seeds.
“The mid-level predators, your foxes, raccoons and skunks, are the first ones to find that cat food,” Julian says.
Others are looking, too. My friend Rick D’Elia, who lives in Fountain Hills, once found javelina raiding his garbage cans.
Julian cautions against feeding wildlife. Aside from birds and squirrels, it’s illegal in Maricopa County. And Julian has advice for encounters with any creature. “Once upon a time, the rule of thumb was leave them alone and they’ll leave you alone,” he says.
That’s changed as cities have sprawled and bumped up against wildlife more often.
“When you leave them alone, they learn that we’re not a threat and they get comfortable… around humans, and that could potentially lead to more problems and human safety issues.”
His advice: Do what you can to make the animals feel unwelcome. “You want to make them know that humans are a potential threat,” Julian says.
Run at them, yell at them, pepper them with small rocks – “anything that’s going to cause irritation or discomfort without causing injury.”
Instead of expensive pepper spray, Julian recommends filling a super soaker squirt gun with diluted ammonia. Don’t run away. And one more thing, he cautions.
“With any species in Arizona, you don’t ever want to play dead.”
IT’S NOT JUST ME. I have friends, neighbors and colleagues who’ve also observed it feels like we’re seeing more urban wildlife than ever. Experts, however, insist that not much has changed, in terms of their numbers and variety. What gives?
Like me, a lot of people have been walking their neighborhoods more in the last year, Julian says. From March to May of 2019, Game & Fish had reports of 336 human/wildlife interactions. That number increased to 538 during the same months of 2020.
But my family was seeing more wildlife even before COVID-19 shut everything down. Julian says that’s likely because creatures have become more comfortable around people over the generations.
Great horned owls are getting “more and more urbanized,” he says. He believes it’s because young nestlings fall from trees and are taken to rescue organizations that rehab and release them – and the owls stick around town, having grown accustomed to being near humans.
The owls used to be very aggressive, swooping at people and dogs. “You really don’t see that anymore,” Julian says.
Roadrunners have figured out that geckos, one of their favorite snacks, hang out on block walls – so they are sticking around more, as well.
They look like cute stuffed animals – but stay away. While not officially endangered, Athene cunicularia is at risk – largely because development has encroached on its habitat.
No, that’s not a large cat – it’s Procyon lotor, and they’re all over the Valley. Know the nocturnal creatures by their distinctive five-toed tracks or their classic bandit mask – and the pillaged trash can by your garage.
Often called roof rats for their ability to jump and climb, these scavengers are drawn to citrus found in well-irrigated neighborhoods, and they take over. Not native to Metro Phoenix, or North America, for that matter – but try telling them that.
In some cases, it’s the opposite. Bear sightings are down in recent years, and there are far fewer jackrabbits than there used to be.
All of this is circumstantial, of course, but at least one local scientist is in the middle of a research project that should provide some real data.
Jesse Lewis, an assistant professor at ASU, is studying the effects of urbanization on wildlife species in Arizona, including metro Phoenix, through a project funded by the National Science Foundation. His focus is mammals. In early 2019, he and his colleagues set up 50 wildlife cameras in undeveloped areas as well as neighborhoods; Downtown Phoenix; and near Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.
The cameras came down in summer 2020 and now Lewis and his students are in the process of analyzing more than a million photos. He’s already learned that as urbanization increases, there are fewer coyotes, bobcats and javelina, and he’s eager to see if the COVID-19 shutdown impacted the prevalence of urban wildlife.
There’s one more finding.
Lewis put a camera on ASU’s Tempe campus and – no surprise – got a lot of shots of gray foxes.
THERE’S NO SUCH THING as a sure bet when it comes to spotting wildlife around town.
Unless you look at Lewis’ photos, there’s no guarantee you’ll spot a gray fox on ASU’s campus. We haven’t seen one on our street in months.
You might see redtail hawks near farmland, or Gambel’s quail in your flowerpots.
Rattlesnakes hang out on construction sites at the city’s edges. In the summer, Mexican free-tailed bats converge in a giant drainage pipe near the Arizona Biltmore.
Native to Northern and Central America, the omnivorous canine – which might also have red or silver fur – shows up all over the Valley, particularly where there’s cat food. It can also climb trees.
If you want a guaranteed wildlife sighting any time of the year, you can find it at the Phoenix Zoo, where the Arizona Trail exhibit is home to many of the native creatures mentioned here, and more, including bighorn sheep.
You won’t see bighorn sheep walking down your street, says Devorah Young, the zoo’s senior keeper for hoofstock, but if you look up you can see them from the middle of the zoo, high above the rest of the animals on the rocks in Papago Park, with a 360-degree view of the city from their 3.5-acre exhibit.
Mexican Free-Tailed Bat
Nesting in caves, under bridges or in abandoned buildings, these winged mammals eat moths and other insects. Between May and October, you can glimpse thousands of them in a flood-control tunnel on the Arizona Canal Trail near 40th Street, known as “the bat cave.”
“At one point they probably lived on the mountains where they reside now,” says Young. “They get to live a pretty awesome life.”
Young, who lives on the Tempe-Mesa border, says she never sees wildlife in her neighborhood, but she loves the fact that you don’t have to go far out of town to see so much. Or you can stay in town and visit the zoo, she says. Be sure to grab a keeper and ask questions.
Known for its stubby tail and Wolverine-style sideburns, Lynx rufus rarely makes appearances in urban areas and doesn’t typically bother humans. Weighing 10 to 45 pounds, it feeds on snakes, lizards and small mammals – including house cats.
The Valley’s definitive flightless land fowl is known for its beautiful plume. Found throughout the metro, the well-balanced birds scurry around in coveys and eat cactus fruit, leaves and plant shoots.
Grab a black light and go hunting – but be careful, because these predatory arachnids are the most venomous scorpions in North America. They can be useful – eating cockroaches, crickets, spiders and even other scorpions – but you don’t want to find one in your home, which can happen all over the Valley, particularly if you have date palms in your neighborhood.
I had one last question: How does climate change impact urban wildlife?
That’s a complicated one, according to David Pearson, a professor in the School of Life Sciences at ASU. “It would be really nice to say it will be all bad for everything, but that’s not true,” says Pearson, who also works with ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation.
In the summer, cities are hotter than ever, both because of climate change and the heat island effect, in which asphalt and construction materials intensify already high temperatures, Pearson says. That does not always fare well for wildlife. But in drought conditions, urban areas can be a lifesaver to creatures able to find a golf course, manmade lake or other spots with water. The same holds true for nourishment.
Arizona is home to 13 species of rattlesnake, including this “pit viper,” so named for the heat-seeking pits located under its eyes that help it find prey. Fortunately, you don’t have to worry about stepping on one in winter, when they hibernate.
Common in neighborhoods near desert preserves, these adorable plant-eating lagomorphs themselves serve as food for many predators, including coyotes and diamondbacks. It’s favorite defense mechanism: freezing in place.
“There’s more food here,” Pearson says of the urban environment. “There’s rats, there’s cats, there’s flowers, there’s fruits.”
And some creatures, like hummingbirds, are susceptible to cold temperatures. During the winter, they do better in the warmer city.
That’s not the case for all.
“There’s pollution, there’s a lot of noise, there’s all kinds of aspects that are going to have deleterious effects,” Pearson says. “Not everything can make it in the city.”
Known as “chapparal birds,” these flightless speedsters (top speed: 27 MPH) are ideally adapted for the desert. Coyotes do hunt them – beep! beep! – along with raccoons and other mammals. They eat everything from tarantulas to snakes and can jump to catch a hummingbird.
I FINISHED WRITING THIS STORY, hit save and headed out for an early evening walk with my daughter. A half-block from the house, she grabbed my arm and squealed.
“Look, Mom! A fox!”
Sure enough, there it was – pointy ears, bushy tail – bounding across the street. We tried to see where it was headed, but the fox was too quick.
And so we moved on.
The only venomous lizard native to the U.S. is slow-moving and not much of a threat to people. You can find them on the outskirts of town, particularly on a warm evening or near a water source.
The small, almost translucent pink lizards you see on your block wall are non-native and really get around – sometimes stowing away in a moving van or long-haul truck.
Red Tail Hawk
Found across the U.S., it eats everything from rats to bats. Snakes, too. You might see one in your backyard. They are brown with a striped stomach and, of course, a red tail.
Sonoran Desert Tortoise
This tortoise is an herbivore. Ravens and badgers are among its predators. If you see one in metro Phoenix, it’s almost certainly a pet that has escaped.
Desert Hairy Scorpion
Extremely large – 4 to 7 inches – and aggressive, these household pests are known to to cozy up in a shoe or a blanket. Luckily, their venom isn’t very strong.
Known for their giant ears, these herbivores, eat everything from grass to cactus. Not as ubiquitous as cottontail rabbits, they are typically found in fields.
Released into the wild in the 1980s, these small, social parrots have thrived in the Valley – the only place in the world you can find them outside their native Africa.
North American Cougar
The Puma concolor (read: mountain lion) holds the Guinness world record for most number of names, with 40 in English alone. Prefers a rocky, brushy habitat.
You can find hooded, hog-nosed and spotted skunks in the Arizona wilderness, but this bad boy is the one that bedevils our city nostrils. It’s nocturnal, omnivorous and tends to live in harems.
No discussion of Valley wildlife is complete without Canis latrans mearnsi, the dominant coyote species in AZ. Remarkably adaptable, and feeds on anything – including your pets.
Photos courtesy Adobe Stock Images (9); wikimedia.commons.org (1)