Welcome to 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. A number of 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.
And in addition to all the animals that inhabit California’s land, there is another world beneath the waves of the Pacific Ocean.
Common animals that live throughout the state include raccoons, weasels, otters, beavers, hawks, lizards, owls, coyotes, skunks, snakes, cougars, black bears, deer, squirrels, and whales ( gray, fin and blue, and Risso’s dolphin). So California is definitely not only known for LA city life and golden gate bridge selfies but for an ecosystem of vast and diverse fauna and flora too!
There are many reasons to visit California because there’s something for everyone in the Golden State – fun, adventure, beauty, and history await you in this particular West Coast state. After reading our list of reasons to visit California and the wildlife in California, you’ll be booking your CA trip in no time!
Intrigued about wildlife in California and where to see and encounter once-in-a-lifetime experiences, read on to find out more about the diverse species of wildlife!
Wildlife in California: Species
The terrestrial mammal fauna of California includes about 160 species, with rodents making up more than half of this total. Roughly 30 mammal species are restricted to the desert regions of the state and thus are not considered part of the Mediterranean-climate region fauna
California has more native species than any other state in the U.S. and has the most significant number of endemic species that don’t occur anywhere else.
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 live in many different types of habitats in California, from deserts to humid coast range forests and from sea level to 10,000-foot elevations. They generally will be most abundant in areas with plentiful deer. Home Range: An adult male’s home range often spans over 100 square miles.
Most biologists now agree on an average population density of 1.7 lions per 100 sq km of habitat. In California (~185,000 sq km of habitat), that equates to approximately 3,100 resident mountain lions for the entire state.
Bobcats, sometimes called wildcats, are roughly twice as big as the average housecat. They have long legs, large paws, and tufted ears similar to their larger relative, the Canada lynx. Most bobcats are brown or brownish red with a white underbelly and short, black-tipped tail. Bobcats may look cute and cuddly, but these felines that live throughout North America are fierce predators. These felines are solitary and territorial.
The coyote, whose name is derived from the Aztec coyote, is found from Alaska southward into Central America, but especially on the Great Plains. Coyotes are members of the Canidae family and share a lot of the same traits as their relatives: wolves, dogs, foxes, and jackals—another significant part of Wildlife in California.
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 is the largest of the true foxes and one of the most widely distributed members of the order Carnivora, present across the entire Northern Hemisphere, including most of North America. The fox is the smallest of the wild dogs in North America. It is one of the most intelligent wild animals and is very adaptable.
Where to see them
Their populations have grown and gradually spread. They have been spotted throughout the lowland areas of California, including the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys, the San Francisco Bay-Delta area, the Southern California Coast Range and Coastal Plain, and most major urban areas.
The gray wolf (Canis lupus) is a native species that was likely extirpated from California in the 1920s. Wolves are now returning to California by dispersal of individuals from source populations in other states. Today, known wild gray wolves in California include the Lassen Pack and three apparent lone wolves, according to the report.
Presently, the statewide black bear population is conservatively estimated to be between 30,000 and 40,000. Two subspecies of black bears are recognized in California, the northwestern black bear (Ursus americana altifrontalis) and the California black bear.
Two of California’s national parks provide opportunities for bear encounters. Yosemite National Park and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are home to hundreds of black bears.
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 is indigenous to western North America; it is named for its ears, which are large like the mule’s. Two subspecies of mule deer are grouped into the black-tailed deer. The elk or wapiti is one of the largest species within the deer family, Cervidae, and 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.
With the ocean to the west, you’d be driving up Highway 1, passing by San Simeon in California, and experiencing actual wild zebras! Yes, that’s right, there’s an entire herd of wild zebras located just south of San Simeon. As of 2019, there are about 126 zebras in the herd, up from 119 in 2018.
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 is one of North America’s largest native snakes, reaching up to 64 inches in length and endemic to California’s Central Valley, where it originally inhabited natural wetlands. Unfortunately, wetland destruction for agricultural, urban, and industrial development has eliminated more than 90 percent of suitable habitat for the species, forcing snakes to rely heavily on rice fields and managed marsh areas.
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 most common in California is the California quail.
California quail are most commonly found in the west coast regions of the United States. California quail prefer living in open woodlands, bushy foothills, and valleys.
You’ll find California Quail in chaparral, sagebrush, oak woodlands, and foothill forests of California and the Northwest. They’re pretty tolerant of people and can be expected 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, your best time to spot gray whales and orcas is from December to May. For humpbacks, visit May through November, and for blue whales, the largest animal on Earth, plan your stay sometime between July and October.
Gray whales, orcas, humpbacks, minke, finback, and blue whales migrate off the California coast throughout the year, so you’re sure to spot at least one species on a whale-watching excursion. The best time is during the annual migration of grey whales, from December to April, though whales visit these waters year-round. You might see blue whales growing more than 30 meters long 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 can be found along California’s central coast, from San Mateo County in the north to near Santa Barbara in the south. Northern sea otters are located along the coast of Alaska and Washington, and Russian otters are found in the Pacific Ocean off Russia and Japan.
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
Today, the northern elephant seal population is approximately 150,000, 124,000 of which are in California waters, and is probably near the size it was before they were over-hunted. Elephant Seals are seen year-round at the Piedras Blancas Rookery.
The best times of year to see these amazing animals in action are October through May, with the big show (birthing and breeding) in January and February. See these magnificent marine mammals up close on one of the prettiest 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
This central California park is one of the country’s hottest, driest, and lowest places. It’s also one of the most stunning places where sculptural canyons, undulating sand dunes, abundant wildlife, and a luminous sky abound.
Of course, the park is home to more “traditional” wildlife, such as coyotes, bobcats, desert bighorn sheep, nine bat species, gophers, kangaroo rats, cottontails (mountain and desert), fox, badgers, ringtails, and even some mountain lions.
Yosemite National park
Another great part of wildlife in California:
Yosemite is 1,200 square miles of protected area in northern California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. Additionally, Yosemite is truly a paradise for the outdoorsy traveler – hiking, rock climbing, horseback riding, and rafting are just some activities you can enjoy. During the winter, there is skiing and snowboarding. Yosemite National Park supports more than 400 species of vertebrates, including fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals.
Lake Tahoe and Tahoe National Forest
The lake was formed about two million years ago as part of the Lake Tahoe Basin, with the modern extent being shaped during the ice ages. Furthermore, it is known for the clarity of its water and the panorama of surrounding mountains on all sides. Lake Tahoe is a major tourist attraction in 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 offer 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.
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