Welcome to Animals and Wildlife in California.
Because of California’s vast size and the fact that it’s a coastal state, it offers a bounteous array of animals. Several different climates – from the temperate mountains in the north to California’s desert and from coastal mountains to arid chaparral – contribute to this bounty of animal creatures.
Beyond the rich tapestry of animals that roam California’s vast landscapes, another enchanting world thrives beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean.
From the bustling cities to the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, California is not merely a haven for urban life and picture-perfect selfies. It boasts a diverse ecosystem that includes a myriad of terrestrial creatures like raccoons, weasels, otters, beavers, hawks, lizards, owls, coyotes, skunks, snakes, cougars, black bears, deer, squirrels, and majestic marine inhabitants such as gray, fin, and blue whales, along with Risso’s dolphins. California beckons as a realm where cityscapes harmonize with a wealth of diverse flora and fauna, creating an ecosystem as vast and dynamic as the state itself.
California beckons with a myriad of reasons to visit, offering a diverse array of experiences for every traveler in the Golden State. Whether you seek fun, adventure, beauty, or a journey through history, California unfolds its treasures along the West Coast. As you explore our list of compelling reasons to visit California and delve into the vibrant wildlife encounters it holds, you’ll find yourself swiftly planning your trip to the CA wonders! Stay tuned to discover more about the rich tapestry of wildlife, ensuring your California adventure is nothing short of unforgettable.
Wildlife in California: Species
California boasts a terrestrial mammal fauna comprising approximately 160 species, with rodents constituting over half of this diverse total. Around 30 mammal species are exclusive to the desert regions of the state, categorically distinct from the fauna of the Mediterranean-climate region.
Distinguishing itself as a biodiversity hotspot, California stands out with the highest number of native species among all U.S. states. Furthermore, it claims the title for hosting the most significant number of endemic species, species found nowhere else, adding an extra layer of uniqueness to its diverse and thriving ecosystem.
Bobcats and mountain lions are among the biggest creatures now. Coyotes, foxes, raccoons, skunks, weasels, rabbits, and deer are other land mammals living in California.
Cougars/ Mountain Lions
Mountain lions are not threatened or endangered in California. California’s lion population is relatively high, and their numbers appear stable. Mountain lions are legally classified as “specially protected species.”
Where to see them
Mountain lions thrive in a diverse array of habitats across California, ranging from deserts to humid coastal range forests, and elevations from sea level to 10,000 feet. Their abundance is notably higher in regions rich in deer populations.
The home range of an adult male mountain lion can extend over 100 square miles, showcasing their vast roaming capabilities. Biologists generally concur on an average population density of 1.7 lions per 100 square kilometers of habitat. Applying this density to California’s expansive habitat, approximately 3,100 resident mountain lions are estimated to inhabit the entire state, emphasizing the widespread presence of these majestic creatures.
Bobcats, also known as wildcats, dwarf the average housecat, boasting a size roughly twice as large. With long legs, substantial paws, and tufted ears reminiscent of their larger kin, the Canada lynx, most bobcats exhibit a brown or brownish-red coat, complemented by a white underbelly and a short, black-tipped tail. Despite their charming appearance, these felines, prevalent throughout North America, are formidable predators. Solitary and territorial, bobcats navigate their territories with both grace and fierceness.
Now, let’s turn our attention to the coyote. Bearing a name derived from the Aztec coyote, this creature is distributed from Alaska southward into Central America, particularly thriving on the Great Plains. As members of the Canidae family, coyotes share numerous traits with their relatives—wolves, dogs, foxes, and jackals—comprising a significant component of California’s diverse wildlife.
Coyotes (Canis latrans) are found throughout most of California. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates a population of 250,000 to 750,000 animals. Coyotes are very adaptable and inhabit most areas of the state except the centers of major metropolitan areas.
The red fox, the largest among the true foxes, stands as one of the most extensively distributed members of the order Carnivora. Its presence spans the entire Northern Hemisphere, encompassing the majority of North America. Despite being the smallest among wild dogs in North America, the red fox distinguishes itself as one of the most intelligent wild animals, showcasing remarkable adaptability in various environments.
Where to see them
Experiencing a gradual increase in population, red foxes have expanded their presence across the lowland regions of California. Sightings have been reported in various areas, including the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys, the San Francisco Bay-Delta region, the Southern California Coast Range and Coastal Plain, as well as in most major urban areas. The adaptability of red foxes has allowed them to thrive in diverse landscapes, making them a notable part of California’s wildlife tapestry.
The gray wolf (Canis lupus), a native species likely extirpated from California in the 1920s, is making a remarkable return to the state. Wolves are now reclaiming California through the dispersal of individuals from source populations in other states. As of today, documented wild gray wolves in California consist of the Lassen Pack and three apparent lone wolves, signaling the resurgence of this iconic species in the region, according to the report.
Currently, the black bear population across the state is conservatively estimated to range between 30,000 and 40,000. California recognizes two subspecies of black bears: the northwestern black bear (Ursus americana altifrontalis) and the California black bear.
For those seeking bear encounters, two of California’s national parks stand out. Yosemite National Park and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks serve as home to hundreds of black bears, offering unique opportunities to observe these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat.
Raccoons, skunks, weasels, squirrels, kangaroo rats, opossums, and ornate shrews are some of the many smaller mammals that find their home in California.
Deer and Elk
The mule deer, native to western North America, earns its name from its distinctive ears, resembling those of a mule. Two subspecies of mule deer fall under the category of black-tailed deer. On the other hand, the elk or wapiti, a member of the deer family (Cervidae), stands as one of the largest species within this family and holds the distinction of being one of the largest terrestrial mammals in North America.
From the arid desert of the Mojave to the snowy heights of the Sierras, California is home to diverse populations of bighorn sheep. The state hosts two subspecies: desert bighorn and Sierra Nevada bighorn.
From the arid desert of the Mojave to the snowy heights of the Sierras, California is home to diverse populations of bighorn sheep. You will most likely spot them in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California.
Driving up Highway 1 along the picturesque coastline of California near San Simeon, you might be in for a surprise encounter with actual wild zebras! Astonishingly, there exists an entire herd of wild zebras just south of San Simeon. As of 2019, the herd boasts approximately 126 zebras, showing an increase from 119 in the previous year. The unexpected presence of these iconic African animals adds a unique and captivating element to the California landscape.
A total of 23 species of reptiles may be found in California, including pond turtles, lizards, and snakes, most commonly the Garter snake.
The giant garter snake stands out as one of North America’s largest native snakes, capable of reaching lengths of up to 64 inches. Endemic to California’s Central Valley, it initially thrived in natural wetlands. Regrettably, the destruction of wetlands for agricultural, urban, and industrial purposes has eradicated over 90 percent of the suitable habitat for this species. Consequently, these snakes now heavily rely on rice fields and managed marsh areas for their survival.
The more than 600 bird species spotted in California make up about two-thirds of all bird species in North America, including the tiny Calliope Hummingbird, the elegant Black Phoebe, and the great California Condor.
The California quail holds the title of the most common quail species in California. These quails predominantly inhabit the west coast regions of the United States, favoring open woodlands, bushy foothills, and valleys. California quail can be readily observed in chaparral, sagebrush, oak woodlands, and foothill forests across California and the Northwest. Remarkably tolerant of human presence, they can be encountered in city parks, suburban gardens, and agricultural areas.
The Bald Eagle has been the national emblem of the United States since 1782 and a spiritual symbol for native people for far longer than that. Bald eagles in winter may be found throughout most of California in lakes, reservoirs, rivers, rangelands, and coastal wetlands. The State’s breeding habitats are mainly in the mountain and foothill forests and woodlands near reservoirs, lakes, and rivers.
Marine mammals found in California include harbor seals, elephant seals, sea lions, sea otters, killer whales, and blue, fin, humpback, and gray whales.
In Northern California, the optimal period for observing gray whales and orcas is from December to May. For humpbacks, the best time to visit is from May through November, while for the majestic blue whales, the largest creatures on Earth, plan your stay between July and October.
Various whale species, including gray whales, orcas, humpbacks, minke, finback, and blue whales, migrate off the California coast throughout the year. Therefore, embarking on a whale-watching excursion guarantees an encounter with at least one of these magnificent creatures. The prime time coincides with the annual migration of gray whales, occurring from December to April, although whales frequent these waters year-round. Moreover, you may have the chance to witness blue whales, exceeding 30 meters in length, between May and October.
Where to see whales
Whale Watching on the California Coast
- Mendocino. Whales usually swim right by the Mendocino Coast on their journey.
- La Jolla. San Diego is one of California’s best whale-watching areas, especially La Jolla.
- Orange County. There are several great places in Orange County to spot whales.
- San Francisco.
Southern sea otters inhabit the central coast of California, stretching from San Mateo County in the north to near Santa Barbara in the south. On the other hand, Northern sea otters are situated along the coast of Alaska and Washington. Russian otters are found in the Pacific Ocean off the coasts of Russia and Japan. These distinct populations occupy specific regions, contributing to the overall diversity of sea otter habitats.
Guadalupe fur Seals
The Guadalupe fur seal belongs to the “eared seal” family, along with sea lions. The Guadalupe fur seal’s range is centered on their preferred mating grounds, Guadalupe Island and, more recently, the San Benito Islands. They are the rarest fur seal species and were once considered extinct.
Northern elephant seals
As of today, the northern elephant seal population stands at approximately 150,000, with 124,000 of them residing in California waters. This current population is likely close to its historical size before they were severely over-hunted. Elephant seals can be observed year-round at the Piedras Blancas Rookery.
For those seeking the best times to witness these remarkable animals in action, the optimal period spans from October through May, with the most significant events, such as birthing and breeding, occurring in January and February. Experience the awe-inspiring presence of these magnificent marine mammals up close along one of the most scenic coastlines in California.
California Sea Lion
The California sea lion is a sleek animal in the wild, faster than any other sea lion or seal. Evidently, these seals top out at speeds of some 25 miles an hour. They are “eared seals” native to the West Coast of North America. They live in coastal waters and on beaches, docks, buoys, and jetties.
Best Wildlife Locations
California boasts nine national parks—more than any other state—and each has its unique appeal. Furthermore, Death Valley is the biggest, the hottest, and the most foreboding. Joshua Tree possesses an otherworldly charm and so much dynamic flora.
9 National Parks: Exploring California’s forests, volcanoes, deserts + islands
- Redwood National and State Parks.
- Yosemite National Park.
- Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.
- Death Valley National Park.
- Joshua Tree National Park.
- Channel Island National Park.
- Lassen Volcanic National Park.
- Pinnacles National Park.
We have selected a few areas to focus on, but please explore all of the above to visit as well!
Death Valley National Park
Situated in central California, this park stands out as one of the hottest, driest, and lowest places in the country. It is also renowned for its breathtaking landscapes, featuring sculptural canyons, undulating sand dunes, abundant wildlife, and an expansive, luminous sky.
Certainly, the park hosts a variety of “traditional” wildlife, including coyotes, bobcats, desert bighorn sheep, nine bat species, gophers, kangaroo rats, cottontails (both mountain and desert varieties), foxes, badgers, ringtails, and even some mountain lions. The diverse ecosystem of the park supports a range of species, contributing to its rich biodiversity.
Yosemite National park
Another great part of wildlife in California:
Yosemite spans an expansive 1,200 square miles in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of northern California. Renowned as a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts, the park offers a plethora of activities such as hiking, rock climbing, horseback riding, and rafting. Winter brings opportunities for skiing and snowboarding. Yosemite National Park is home to a diverse range of wildlife, supporting over 400 species of vertebrates, including fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. The varied ecosystems within the park contribute to its remarkable biodiversity.
Lake Tahoe and Tahoe National Forest
The formation of Lake Tahoe dates back approximately two million years, evolving as part of the Lake Tahoe Basin and further shaped during the ice ages. Renowned for the clarity of its water and surrounded by panoramic views of mountains on all sides, Lake Tahoe stands as a major tourist attraction in both Nevada and California.
More than 290 types of animals and more than 1,000 plant species make up the Lake Tahoe forest and wildlife in the Tahoe Basin. Currently, 305 species of California wildlife are listed on the official endangered species list. This includes Tahoe residents such as the Sierra Red Fox, Lahontan Cutthroat Trout, and the Mountain Beaver, among other animals in California.
Tour Operators for Wildlife in California
Safari West has acted as a haven for animals in Sanoma County, California, for years. Additionally, they have remained operational throughout wildfires, with animal conservation at the forefront. For an authentic safari experience, look at the Sanoma Serengeti Safari west experience!
Yexplore tours offers exclusive and customizable exploration throughout the magnificent Yosemite National Park. Make sure to visit their website for the opportunities that await potential travelers and wildlife enthusiasts.
Summary of Wildlife in California
Finally, California has a world of diversity within its state borders. From the coastline to the desert, animal encounters are guaranteed plentiful and authentic. Let us know which wildlife you hope to see on your next visit to California.