Grand Canyon Wildlife 101 Guide

Grand Canyon Wildlife

While the spectacular views of Grand Canyon are the main draw for most park visitors, people are often pleasantly surprised to also see some unique wildlife during their canyon visit. Grand Canyon is home to a wide array of animals, both large and small, that are adapted to survive in the harsh desert climates of the canyon. Whether it is an endangered California condor gracefully soaring overhead, or a majestic herd of elk gathered together during the rutting season, Grand Canyon’s wildlife is sure to make your Grand Canyon visit even more memorable.

Even though park animals may appear to be tame or fearless around humans, know that all park animals are wild and, therefore, dangerous. Visitors are regularly bit by squirrels that they lure in with food for a close up photo and visitors have been more severely injured by elk and deer as well. Never approach or feed animals at Grand Canyon; park regulations state that you must be 75 feet away from wild animals for both your safety and theirs. Read the guide below to learn more.

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Popular Grand Canyon Animals

California Condor

In the 1980’s there were only 22 California condors left in the wild and the species was on the brink of extinction. All of the remaining birds were captured and placed in captive breeding facilities which worked surprisingly well and by the 1990’s the population was stable enough to begin releasing the birds to the wild again. In 1996, six young captive bred condors were released at Vermillion Cliffs (30 miles north of Grand Canyon) and they have been soaring over the park ever since. Today, the condor population is nearing 500 birds, and there are roughly 75 condors that call Grand Canyon and the Colorado Plateau home.

Condors are scavengers and only eat dead animals, which is why you see them soaring around all day; a condor never stops looking for its’ next meal. Condors are the largest flying birds in North America with a wing span of 9.5 feet. The bottom of their wings have a distinct black and white pattern that is easy to recognize, with a triangular patch of white extending from their armpit to wingtip, and black on the rest of their wings. Condors don’t flap their wings but instead gracefully soar on the warm air that rises up from the bottom of Grand Canyon, making afternoon the best time to look for them. The best places to look for condors is usually Lookout Studio or Hopi Point on the South Rim, Plateau Point off of the Bright Angel Trail in the inner canyon, or perching on the Navajo Bridge on Highway 89A on the East Rim. Pairs of condors have been nesting at the canyon every year and sometimes their nests are visible to the public; inquire at a park Visitor Center for information about current condor nests or sightings.

Rocky Mountain Elk

Elk at Grand Canyon are hard to miss—males can weigh up to 700 lbs and their fall rutting displays are impressively loud and flamboyant. Today you will see herds of Rocky Mountain elk along the South Rim of the canyon, despite being a long way from the Rocky Mountains. After Merriman’s elk were hunted to extinction in the Southwest, hunters were looking for a way to bring these majestic animals back to the area so they jumped on the offer from Yellowstone National Park to ship a few trainloads of “excess” elk to Williams, AZ. Eventually the animals made their way to Grand Canton and are today one of visitors favorite animals to spot.

Because elk are not adapted to desert living, they rely heavily on human water sources to survive at Grand Canyon. It is not unusual to see elk drinking from the park’s water bottle filling stations, with one holding the spout down with their nose while another drinks! Even though these elk are often spotted in human areas, do not approach them—both rutting makes and females with babies are extremely aggressive and could cause you serious harm if you get too close for photos. Look in the ponderosa pine and pinyon-juniper forests along the South Rim roads to spot elk as you travel on the shuttle buses or trails.

Mule Deer

The much smaller cousin of the elk, mule deer are another visitor favorite to spot at Grand Canyon, both on the South and North Rims. These small, hoofed animals have large, swiveling ears that they use to listen for approaching danger. Because of the small size of their young, mule deer are on many predator’s menus so they have to stay alert for approaching coyotes, bobcats or mountain lions.

After the Grand Canyon National Game Preserve was established on the North Rim by Teddy Roosevelt in 1906, all area predators were heavily hunted which made the deer population explode. The deer were sick and starving due to lack of food so, in 1924, George McCormick tried to solve the problem by hiring hands and attempting to “drive” the excess deer across the Grand Canyon, via a crossing of the Colorado River. Not surprisingly, the drive didn’t work but eventually the herds on both rims of the canyon became healthy again after predator populations began to increase. Today, you can see deer at Grand Canyon year-round and they are most active at dawn and dusk

Bighorn Sheep

Bighorn sheep are some of Grand Canyon’s most impressive athletes; they can easily balance and carry up to 30lbs of weight on top of their heads in their massive, curling horns as they gracefully jump, run and climb on nearly vertical cliffs and knife-thin ledges looking for food and water. Bighorn sheep are well-adapted to harsh desert environments and avoid predators by walking out onto rocky areas that other animals wouldn’t dare climb out on. Like most areas of the West, the Grand Canyon bighorn sheep population is also declining due to lack of food and water as drought and warm temperatures threaten their habitat.

Bighorn sheep can can be spotted almost anywhere in the canyon, from rim to river. Visitors will spot them on the South Rim in Grand Canyon Village and while hiking on the Bright Angel or a South Kaibab trails. For some reason, fall seems to be the best time of year to spot them along the rim. Bighorn sheep are also a special part of many Grand Canyon river trips—you feel like a visitor in their quiet world as you paddle by a herd peacefully drinking from the Colorado River.

Kaibab and Abert’s Squirrels

Also called tasseled-eared squirrels, these two adorable squirrel species are closely related but live on opposite sides of the canyon. While the tall tale of the canyon is that the squirrels must have been separated on opposite rims as the Colorado river carved the canyon between them, the squirrels were actually separated much more recently by receding ponderosa pine forests after the end of the last ice age.

Today you find the grey and white Abert’s squrirels on the South Rim (and throughout other Western ponderosa pine forests) but the Kaibab Squirrel is endemic to the Kaibab Plateau so you must visit Grand Canyon’s North Rim if you’d like to see one. The Kaibab squirrel has a dark brown (almost black) body that scientists think helps them absorb heat from the sun to keep them warm on cool North Rim days and nights. Their bright white tails come in handy when hawks and goshawks are hunting them overhead—they cover their dark colored bodies with their tails to blend in perfectly with the snow!

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List of Common Grand Canyon Animals

Grand Canyon Mammals

  • Pronghorn (antelope): found in open sagebrush areas. Common.
  • Bison: found in the forests and meadows on the North Rim. Abundant.
  • Desert bighorn sheep: found in rocky areas, both on the rim and inside the canyon. Uncommon.
  • Elk: Non-native; found in forested areas. Abundant.
  • Mule deer: found in forested areas. Abundant.
  • Javelina: small, pig-like animal. Uncommon.
  • Coyote: found throughout all Grand Canyon habitats. Common.
  • Gray fox: nocturnal, mostly spotted climbing trees at Phantom Ranch. Uncommon.
  • Bobcat: found in forested areas. Common.
  • Mountain lion: nocturnal, found in forested or rocky areas. Uncommon.
  • Striped skunk: found in a variety of habitats. Common.
  • Western spotted skunk: found in a variety of habitats. Uncommon.
  • Ringtail: related to raccoons, with a long black and white striped tail used for balance when climbing trees. Most commonly seen at night at Phantom Ranch. Common.
  • Black bear: Occasionally seen on North and South Rims. Rare.
  • Bats: 24 species of bats nest in the rocky caves found throughout the canyon, several of which are listed as Species of Concern. Rare to common, depending on the species.
  • Black-tailed jack rabbit: found in sagebrush areas. Uncommon.
  • Desert cottontail: found in a variety of habitats. Common.
  • Mice, voles and rats: many different species found thorughout the canyon.
  • Porcupine: found in the forests on the North Rim. Common.
  • Abert’s squirrel: found in the forests on the South Rim. Common.
  • Kaibab squirrel: found in the forests on the North Rim. Common.
  • Rock Squirrel: the most commonly seen squirrels at Grand Canyon, these are the squirrels that visitors see at park overlooks. Common.
  • Cliff chipmunk: the most commonly seen chipmunk at the canyon. Common.
  • Least chipmunk: found in rocky or forest habitats. Common.

Grand Canyon Reptiles and Amphibians

  • Whipsnakes: serval species of whipsnakes are found at Grand Canyon, non of which are poisonous. Have long, thin bodies. Common.
  • Bullsnake/Gopher snake: can be very long, up to 8ft. Yellow with brown/black patches, they can be very defensive but are not poisonous. Common.
  • Collared lizard: named for the two black stripes around their neck, these are commonly seen sunning themselves on rocks. Common.
  • Gila monster: these large, orange and black lizards are one of the only poisonous lizards found in the US. Rare.
  • Spiny lizards: one of the most commonly seen lizards at the canyon, they often do push-ups in the sun as a display of strength to protect their territory. Common.
  • Greater short-horned lizards: also known as a horny toads, these lizards are easy to spot with their very round abdomens and fringed “collars” around their necks. Common.
  • Western skink: easy to spot with their long, bright blue tails. Common.
  • Whiptail (lizard): has a heavily spotted body and very long tail.
  • Western diamondback rattlesnake: distinct for the rattle at the end of the tail, rattlesnakes rattle as a warning to stay away but rarely strike at people if you leave them alone. Poisonous; common.
  • Grand Canyon pink rattlesnake: a subspecies of rattlesnake that is only found at Grand Canyon, these rattlesnakes have developed a pink skin color that helps them blend into the reddish rocks at Grand Canyon. Poisonous; rare.
  • Mohave desert tortoise: the only tortoise species at Grand Canyon. Rare.
  • Red-spotted toad: small toad found along streams. Abundant.
  • Canyon Treefrog: not found in trees, these frogs have feet desgined for climbing on rocks. Their camouflage makes them blend in perfectly with the canyon walls and you might walk right by them. Abundant.
  • Spadefoot toad: several species of toads can be found at Grand Canyon, they secret poison to deter predators and dig burrows in the ground during dry or cold weather. Uncommon.
  • Tiger salamander: named for the black and yellow pattern on their bellies, these salamanders live in riparian areas. Uncommon.

Grand Canyon Fish

  • Bluehead sucker: these medium-size native fish have broad mouths that they use to scrape food off of rocks in the streams and rivers at Grand Canyon. Common.
  • Flannelmouth sucker: a species of special concern in Arizona, this fish is found in the Colorado River. Common.
  • Humpback chub: native and endangered fish found in the Colorado River that breed in the cloudy waters of the Little Colorado River. The National Park Service has transplanted chub into Shinumo and Havasu creeks. Their distinclty rounded back gives them their name. Uncommon.
  • Speckled dace: these small yellowish/brownish fish like to nibble on your toes when you put your weary feet into a stream to cool down. Common.
  • Trout: all trout species at Grand Canyon are non-native and eat native species of aquatic insects and animals. They are a favorite of Grand Canyon anglers. Uncommon to common.

Grand Canyon Birds

  • The wide range of habitats at Grand Canyon leads to an incredible diversity of birds at the park. In addition to the bird species that live and breed at the canyon, Grand Canyon is also an important stop-over for migrating birds in the spring and fall as well. Because of this, Grand Canyon was designated as a Globally Important Bird Area in 2014 to recognize the role it plays in protecting roughly 450 bird species.
  • Northern Goshawk: can be seen swooping through the ponderosa pine forests of the North Rim, these hawks re skilled hunters that love to eat Kaibab squirrels. Common.
  • Red-tailed hawk: very common hawk that soars above the canyon with a tail that appears bright red when viewed from underneath. Common.
  • Turkey vulture: often mistaken for a California condor, these very common birds soar above Grand Canyon year-round. Their heads lack feathers and their skin is a distinct red color. When viewed from below, their wings have the opposite color pattern of condors: black from elbow to wingtip and white on the wing fringe. They soar on their 6.5 ft wings and hold their wings in a “v” shape that makes them tilt back and forth as they fly. Common.
  • California condor: about 75 endangered condors live at Grand Canyon and are most commonly seen in the summer. Their 9.5 ft wings are held flat while they soar, with a white patch from elbow to wingtip and black on the fringe; also have bald, red heads. Common.
  • Osprey: these skilled fish hunters can be seen soaring above and diving into the Colorado River for fish. Common.
  • White-throated swift: these small black and white birds nest in colonies in the rocks. They are one of the fastest birds in North America and can be seen flying 70mph as they hunt flying insects in the canyon. Common.
  • Canyon wren: these birds have what is called “the song of the canyon,” a descending cascade of notes that echoes among the canyon walls. They are small, brown birds with a relatively long, thin beak and a tail that they point up in the air. You’ll hear them more than you see them. Common.
  • Pinon Jay: these greyish/bluish birds collect and cache pinyon nuts in the fall so they can feast all year. Eash bird can have hundreds of caches and they have an amazing 90% recall to go back and eat the food throughout the year. The caches they forget about become more pinyon pines. Common.
  • Scrub Jay: these birds have blue backs and white stomachs and are found in forested areas. Common.
  • Raven: these all-black birds are known as the clowns of the canyon for both the playful way that they fly and swoop in the air and their incredible range of vocalizations. They have an impressive 4ft wing span. Common.
  • White-breasted nuthatch: these pretty birds are easy to identify because they are they only birds that regularly climb down the trunks of trees in search of food; they do not ever climb up, they only climb down. They are grey and white, and the males have a black cap on their head. Common.
  • Peregrin falcon: nest in the canyon walls and have been clocked at an incredible 240mph in a dive! You will often hear their calls echoing throughout the side canyon before you see them. Common.
  • Greater roadrunner: while these birds can actually fly, you most often see them running quickly across the ground in search of lizards and insects to eat. Grand Canyon is about as far north as their range extends so you don’t see them often. Uncommon.
  • Chukar: this non-native bird is distinctly chicken-shaped with a cream and white stripe pattern on the wings and a bright red bill. Seen throughout western deserts, you might catch a glimpse of one at Grand Canyon. Uncommon.
  • Western Tanager: these bright-colored birds stand out in the desert with their yellow breast and red head. Common.
  • American Dipper: these birds are named for the inexplicable up and down bobbing motion that they make as they hunt among the rocks along streams and rivers. They are the only bird that “walks” under water, grabbing onto rocks on the stream bed while they hunt for insects. Common
  • Great blue heron: these large and graceful birds can be easy to miss, standing still as statues along the banks of the Colorado River while ou float by in a raft. They stand over 4ft tall and have a bluish tint to their feathers, with black feathers forming a “tail” off the back of their heads. Common.
  • Mexican spotted owl: these owls are a threatened species because of forest habitat destruction throughout the southwest. They nest in rocky caverns at Grand Canyon. Uncommon.

Grand Canyon Invertebrates

  • Bark scorpion: a venomous scorpion that grows up to 2.5in long. These nocturnal scorpions are brown and blend in easily, unless you shine a blacklight on them, and then they glow bright blue. Common.
  • Tarantula: Much smaller than their cousins further south in Arizona, Grand Canyon’s tarantulas burrow underground. You are most likely to see them in the fall when males leave their burrows in search of a mate. They like to warm themselves on blacktop pavement so you can sometimes see them on the Rim Trail, Village Greenway, or on park roads. Common.
  • Carpenter bees: These large, shiny black/blue bees are very noticeable during the summer months at Grand Canyon. The males are what you most commonly see flying around and they will aggressively defend their nests from other bees and sometimes even humans! Don’t fret though, the male bees do not have stingers. Common.
  • Tiger swallowtail: These large and showy butterflies have yellow and black stripes on their wings with long, black “tails” at the end of each wing. They drink nectar from flowers. Common.
  • Monarch: These butterflies have beautiful orange and black wings with spots. They use Grand Canyon as a stop-over on their way to and from their breeding grounds in Mexico. Monarch’s population have plummeted in recent years so a sighting is always encouraging. Common.
  • Darkling beetles: These black scavenging beetles are particularly noticeable against the light brown colors of the desert. Their wings are fused together so they cannot fly, so they instead scurry along the ground looking for food. Common.
  • Tarantula hawk: While adult tarantula hawks feed on flowers, it’s their egg laying habits that make them infamous. During mating season, these large wasps (2.5in) predate on tarantulas; they paralyze tarantulas with their stingers and then lay their eggs inside their abdomen where they will grow and hatch. Common.
  • Kanab Ambersnail: This endangered snail is only found in two places in the world: Kanab, Utah and among the vegetation at Vasey’s Paradise along the Colorado River at the bottom of Grand Canyon. It is for this reason that Vasey’s Paradise is closed to visitors. They are decomposers who eat fungus and algae off of plants. Uncommon.

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