While human visitors to Grand Canyon National Park are quickly put off by its arid nature, a surprising array of wildlife calls the park home, from majestic California condors that are trying to make it back from the brink of extinction, to mountain lions and the curious Kaibab squirrel with its tufted ears.
Whether you stay on one of the rims, or venture down into the canyon, wildlife is not hard to spot. Condors might be soaring overhead, lizards or snakes could be nearby, tracks might tell you where a woodrat wandered, or at night you might catch the yip-yip-yip of coyotes.
The park has three distinct life zones for wildlife: the coniferous forest along the North Rim, desert scrub found along the South Rim and the upper levels of the canyon, and the riparian zone along the river corridor. Within each of these zones you can find a resident wildlife community.
Coniferous forest: Everything from black bears and spotted skunks to to Kaibab and Abert squirrels live here, though some are more difficult to spot than others. While you might not expect to encounter a reptile here, the mountain short-horned lizard is said to be abundant in the pinyon and ponderosa pine forests. Nearly 100 bird species flit about the forests, with 51 showing up only in summer. Of those, 15 are neotropical migrants. Goshawks and even spotted owls, both threatened species in the Southwest, can at times be found inside the park's borders.
Desert scrub: Woodrats -- five different species -- live here, and some of the caves are roosts for migratory bats. One of the more unusual residents of this zone is the desert gopher tortoise, a threatened species that seems restricted to the western end of the park. Keep a keen eye overhead and you might see one of the peregrine falcons that inhabit the canyon; park biologists estimate that at least 100 pairs of these raptors reside here.
Riparian: Readily available water makes this a robust life zone, with many lizard species, many snake species that feed on the lizards, ringtails, coyotes, racoon, mountain lions, and even desert bighorn sheep residing here. According to Grand Canyon biologists, there are 10 reptile species that are common to this zone, including gila monsters, and chuckwallas. The park also has recorded six different species of rattlesnakes, though two -- the Southwestern speckled rattlesnake and the Northern black-tailed rattlesnake -- are rarely seen. Most common is the Grand Canyon pink rattlesnake.
To no surprise, the riparian zone is the most common area to spot most of the park's 373 recorded bird species. While you often can spot condors from along the South Rim near the Bright Angel Lodge, down here along the Colorado River 250 bird species can be spotted. Of those, nearly 50 nest here regularly. Bald eagles winter here, as do a good number of waterfowl species,
Perhaps one of the more obscure and unusual residents of the canyon is a tiny scorpion-like invertebrate found nowhere else but the national park. The "Grand Canyon Cave Scorpion" is thought to exist only in the "Cave of the Domes" in the national park. Located on Horseshoe Mesa, the cave is one of an estimated 1,000 caves in the park but is the only one legally open to visitors.
Regarded as one of the rarest birds in the world, the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) is the largest land bird in North America with a wingspan up to 9 1/2 feet and weighing up to 23 pounds. Adults are primarily black except for triangle-shaped patches of bright white underneath their wings. These patches are visible when condors are flying overhead and offer a key identification characteristic. Males and females are identical in size and plumage. The bare heads of condors are grayish-black as juveniles and turn a dull orange-pink as adults.
Condors are members of the New World vulture family and are opportunistic scavengers, feeding exclusively on dead animals such as deer, cattle, rabbits, and large rodents.
Using thermal updrafts, condors can soar and glide at up to 50 miles per hour and travel 100 miles or more per day searching for food while expending little energy.
When not foraging for food, condors spend most of their time perched at a roost. Cliffs, tall conifers, and snags serve as roost sites in Grand Canyon National Park.
Condors become sexually mature at about six years of age and mate for life (although we have had one divorce in Arizona so far!) Most nest sites are found in caves and rock crevices. Condors do not build nests. Instead, an egg about 5 inches in length and weighing around 10 ounces is deposited on bare ground. Condors typically lay a single egg every other year. The egg hatches after 56 days of incubation and both parents share responsibility for incubation and for feeding the nestling. Young condors leave the nest when they are 5 to 6 months old.
There are currently over 70 condors flying free in northern Arizona and southern Utah, including several that were raised in wild nest caves within or near to the Grand Canyon.
The rest come from the captive breeding program. Even the wild-raised birds are mostly now wearing numbered tags and transmitters. The numbers allow you to learn more specifics about any bird you get a close look at.
So look out for these magnificent birds soaring on their 9-foot (nearly 3-meter) wingspan over Grand Canyon National Park. During the warmer months they are seen regularly from the South Rim and frequently also from the North Rim. On the South Rim, try scanning the cliffs and Douglas-fir trees below the Bright Angel Lodge late in the afternoon. Most nights from late April through July and to some degree from March through October, some condors select overnight roosts in that area.
One very important thing to remember in general is not to feed or handle wildlife. Those precautions are doubly important at the Grand Canyon due to the presence of plague and other diseases.
One of the inconspicuous, or insidious, hazards associated with wildlife are the infectious diseases that they may carry. In some situations, these diseases may be transmitted through simple contact, such as that which occurs when people touch or feed wildlife. Humans may also be exposed to these diseases through animal droppings, via fleas or ticks that their pets contracted from infected wildlife, and by handling dead animals. Sick animals may behave especially unpredictably, and may even act aggressively towards or bite humans. Given the serious nature of many of the diseases that wildlife species may carry, everyone who visits or lives in the Grand Canyon region needs to be aware of the diseases, how to protect themselves against exposure to these infectious agents, and the importance of seeking medical care immediately if they suspect that they may have been exposed to them.
For more information on diseases park wildlife might be carrying, read this page on the park's website.