Mammals of Southern Arizona

Seeing mammals other than Homo sapiens and Canis familiaris is always a treat. In southern Arizona, I have run across fifteen species of wild mammal, or at least their sign, in the past three years.

And we've ridden a couple domestic mammals, too.

Deer family: Cervidae

1. Mule deer, Odocoileus hemionus

I'm used to finding mule deer in the green forests of Washington, so the small herd I saw picking their way through cacti and mesquite outside Vail, Arizona looked rather out of place. I suppose their big ears help them radiate extra heat in this sweltering desert.

I took this photo of a mule deer doe grazing at the Nisqually Delta in Washington State. June 2, 2014.

2. Coues white-tailed deer, Odocoileus virginianus couesi

Also known as the Arizona white-tailed deer or fantail deer, the Couse white-tailed deer live in mixed oak and pine woodlands at high altitudes. We saw a few of these very small deer bounding through just such a forest in Madera Canyon during the Christmas Bird Count.

Galen and I found this lower jawbone of a white-tailed deer on National Forest land north of Tucson.

Perfectly good lawn-mowing teeth.

Squirrel family: Sciuridae

3. Harris's antelope squirrel, Ammospermophilus harrisii

Harris's antelope squirrel perching near the Tanque Verde Trail, Saguaro National Park, AZ. January 2, 2017.

4. Rock squirrel, Otospermophilus variegatus

A rock squirrel eating fruits in Madera Canyon. August 2, 2015.

5. Arizona grey squirrel, Sciurus arizonensis

6. Round-tailed ground squirrel, Xerospermophilus tereticaudus

Hannah and I found a colony of round-tailed ground squirrels in Sweetwater Wetlands Park, Tucson, AZ. August 9, 2015.

7. Black-tailed prairie dog, Cynomys ludovicianus

Black-tailed prairie dogs have a long and fascinating history in southeastern Arizona. This species was once the most abundant prairie dog in North America. Its range covered the Southwestern and Midwestern United States and extended into both Mexico and Canada. One "town" in Texas was reported to cover 25,000 square miles and house 400 million black-tailed prairie dogs.

Beginning in the early 1900's, the U.S. government initiated a systemic eradication of prairie dogs to decrease the "waste" of rodent-consumed grass and maximize beef production on rangeland. The strychnine killed off prairie dogs in over 95% of their habitat, but it didn't increase the yield of beef. Turns out, prairie dogs control mesquite growth by devouring the seedlings that sprout after a hard rain. They like treeless colonies because predators are easier to spot. Due to overgrazing and, in large part, prairie dog eradication, invading mesquite has become the primary cause of pasture degradation and declining beef production in Arizona.

Occupied habitat plummeted from a historic high of 100 million acres to a low of 364,000 in 1961. The species was extirpated from Arizona in the early 1960's, and its dependent species, including black-footed ferrets and burrowing owls, suffered alongside it. The black-footed ferret, entirely dependent on prairie dog towns, was declared extinct in the wild in 1979 until a woman's dog brought a dead ferret to her Wyoming doorstep two years later.

Black-tailed prairie dogs were released into Las Cienegas National Conservation Area in 2008 and 2009, and that is where I was lucky to watch them go about their prairie-dog business. Captive-bred black-footed ferrets have been released elsewhere in Arizona, and burrowing owls found their own way back.

The black-tailed prairie dog town at Las Cienegas. August 14, 2016.

A sentry.

A burrowing owl, just where we would expect her to be!

The corrugated black plastic pipe indicating that this prairie-dog town was a reintroduction site.
The amount of effort and money that has gone in to first poisoning and now reintroducing prairie dogs is astounding.

But we are sure glad they're back.

Rabbit family: Leporidae

8. Black-tailed jackrabbit? Lepus californicus

9. Antelope jackrabbit, Lepus alleni

10. Desert cottontail, Sylvilagus audubonii

Desert cottontail in Sweetwater Wetlands Park. August 9, 2015.

Same cottontail. Look at those HUGE ears!

New World rat family: Cricetidae

11. Woodrat species, Neotoma sp.

My friend Hannah and I found this dead woodrat at Sweetwater Wetlands Park. August 9, 2015.

Weasel family: Mustelidae

12. American badger? Taxidea taxus

My mother, Jane, found this odd-looking object in a cave near Vail, AZ while scanning with her binoculars. We debated whether it was an animal, trash, or some strange mineral formation. I took this photo with 200X zoom, and we decided it must be a rock. An hour or so later, we came back to find the object missing! Could it have been an American badger guarding a food cache?

(Speaking of which, if you haven't seen this video of a badger burying a whole cow, you are missing out.)

Could it be a badger?

An American badger photographed at Point Reyes National Seashore. Photo credit: Yathin Krishnappa.

Dog family: Canidae

13. Coyote, Canis latrans (scat only)

I was shocked to find this coyote at the Montlake Fill in the heart of Seattle, Washington, a big city! March 14, 2016.

This coyote was getting fat on fallen dates at China Ranch Date Farm, a magical oasis in the Mojave Desert near Southern Death Valley. November 14, 2016.

Skunk family: Mephitidae

14. Road-killed skunk.

Yeah, not very exciting, I know. Four species of skunk live in Arizona (striped, spotted, hooded, and hog-nosed) but the striped is the most common, and the most commonly road-killed. Rich, Galen, and I noted this one on our nocturnal drive down to California Gulch.

Peccary family: Tayassuidae

15. Javelina, Pecari tajacu

Javelinas, also known as collared peccaries, are two-foot-tall, herbivorous, hoofed mammals. They resemble pigs, but the pig family belongs to the Old World and the peccary family to the New World. They travel in family groups and have large populations in suburban Tucson and Phoenix, as well as Mexico and Central and South America.

Journal Entry January 3, 2017:

Amelia, Galen and I gathered information at Catalina State Park, bought groceries at Walmart, and made camp out a National Forest road. For dinner: rice pilaf, beans, corn tortillas, yellow bell pepper, green onions and wilted spinach. Chamomile tea and strawberries for dessert. I was reading my book while Galen played guitar and Amelia drew a map of the United States, when suddenly I heard a whirring sound in the dark. I spun around as if something had stung me because I felt eyes watching me -- and there was a javelina standing in our camp, staring at us!!! We froze and made eye contact before I shooed him away. I've heard they can be aggressive but he turned tail and trotted off, not in too much of a hurry. Galen and I slept under the stars on a tarp. It felt like home. I wonder if the javelina watched us sleep.

A javelina photographed in the Melbourne Zoo. Photo credit: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos