Categories College Essays

Wildlife of the Coconino National Forest

If you’re ever in my neck of the woods here in Northern Arizona, I encourage you to explore the many wonders of the Coconino National Forest.

At 1.8 million acres with an elevation span of 10,000 feet, the Coconino is one of the most diverse National Forests in the country. Its vistas range from cactus-filled canyons to rolling grassland and snow-capped peaks.

Why not enjoy at least a day exploring the desert red rocks of Sedona, then drive an hour “uphill” to spend the night in Flagstaff, where you can start out bright and early for a hike to the 12,633-foot summit of Mt. Humphreys and experience the alpine tundra.

The wildlife of the Coconino National Forest, dominated by the majestic Ponderosa pine, is as diverse as the scenery. Here, you can find more than a dozen species of bats, black-tailed jackrabbits and bark-eating porcupines. You’ll hear coyotes yelping and elk bugling in the fall. The black bear and American bald eagle are also on the list, as are roadrunners and red-tailed hawks. And the list goes on and on.

To include all critters of the Coconino, great and small, fuzzy and feathered, would make for one extremely long article, so I’ve chosen from among my favorites for various reasons, including a few I’d prefer to view only from afar.

The largest member of the deer family in the Coconino…

…though I hardly think of deer when these big mamas and papas stroll by the house, as they’ve been doing on an almost daily basis lately.

Though I’ve never managed to lure one onto a scale, I’ve read that a bull can weigh up to 1,200 pounds, while they commonly range from 600 to 800 lbs. Mature cows range from 450 to 600 lbs. Appears to me that those frequenting my yard are in the upper limits.

At one time, elk were the most widely distributed member of the North American deer family, found everywhere except the Great Basin desert and the Southern coastal plains, with a population estimated at 10 million.

Elk withstood the impact of western settlement better than buffalo, because they inhabited more rugged terrain, but still their population hit a low of 90,000 in 1922, mostly attributable to hunting and agriculture. Of those 90,000 remaining, 40,000 were in Yellowstone Park, where the herds became a source for breeding stock.

Between 1912 and 1967, more than 13,500 elk were transplanted from the Park and, in 1913, 83 individuals were released in Cabin Draw near Arizona’s Chevelon Creek. From those transplants, the state’s elk population has grown to nearly 35,000 animals. Seems to me that 34,999 of them live in our back yard here at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, though it’s probably more like six to twelve.

It’s not uncommon when visiting friends and family in the area to see an elk rack–or at least one antler–displayed somewhere in the house, as searching for sheds is a fairly popular pastime. The antler cast occurs from January to March for adult bulls and from March through May for sub-adults, with new growth occurring shortly after the cast. The growing period ranges from 90 days for yearlings to 150 days for adult bulls.

By early August, antler growth is complete. Then the velvet dries up and the antlers harden. The velvet is stripped off in a matter of hours, and the elk polishes its trophies against trees. By early September, the bull is nice and spiffy, all dressed up and ready for the rut.

Ever heard a bull elk bugle? It’ll curl your toes in the dead of night.

Here, kitty, kitty!

I’d love to actually see a bobcat in the wild, but, so far, it’s only their tracks that I’ve found, particularly easy to identify in the snow. Being about twice as big as a domestic house cat, bobcats are still small enough–weighing at most about 30 pounds–to make me hope to encounter one.

Bobcats are crepuscular (love that word), meaning they’re generally most active at dusk and dawn. This behavior can change seasonally, as the cats become more diurnal during fall and winter, when their prey are more active during the day in colder months. While hunting, bobcats usually move from 2 to 7 miles along a regular route .

Though the Bobcat prefers to dine on rabbits and hares, it will eat anything from insects and small rodents to deer, with culinary selection depending on location, habitat, season, and availability.

To learn more about this evasive cat, visit The Lynx or Bobcat by “ArtByLinda.”

Shoo, kitty!

Until fairly recently, I had no idea there were mountain lions–a/k/a pumas or cougars –around Flagstaff. That is, until a friend of mine encountered one while horseback riding near Mt. Elden.

So I did a little research and learned that a mountain lion study had been initiated in 2003 by the U.S. Geological Survey. From then until 2006, they captured six female and five male mountain lions in the Flagstaff Uplands, 10 of which were fitted with collars that collected up to six GPS fixes per day, transmitted daily to their office via satellite. You can read details of the U.S.G.S. findings here. Suffice it to say, they’re definitely eating well.

Despite their size, with males averaging between 115 and 160 pounds and females from 75 to 105 pounds, mountain lions aren’t typically classified as “big cats,” like lions and tigers, since they can’t roar. These largest of the “small cats” (uh-huh) lack the specialized larynx and hyoid apparatus necessary to make such a sound. Like domestic cats, though, they make low-pitched hisses, growls and purrs, even chirps and whistles. And they’re well known for their screams. JUST the thing I want to hear while hiking.

Another crepuscular hunter, the mountain lion stalks and ambushes its prey, generally eating any animal they can catch. Aside from humans, though, the adult cats have no natural predators of their own.

But mountain lion attacks on humans are rare, as prey recognition is a learned behavior and they don’t generally recognize humans as such. (Yippee!) If one does happen to encounter a mountain lion, traditional advice is to exaggerate the threat through intense eye contact, loud but calm shouting, and any other action to appear larger and more menacing. Fighting back with sticks and rocks, or even bare hands, is said to often be effective in persuading an attacking cougar to retreat. For the most part, mountain lions avoid humans as much as possible.

One reason my dog stays on a leash…

…even where she doesn’t legally have to. If my dog were untethered and saw a jackrabbit, she’d be off in a split-second, running her little buns off to try to catch it, and my husband and I would be running after her for who knows how long. Well, I do know how long; been there, done that, for the better part of an hour.

And these fast little, long-eared buggers are everywhere. If I don’t see one of them on a particular day, I’ll surely find tracks. And when I occasionally come across bobcat prints, jackrabbit prints are often close at hand, and I wonder if the two ever met.

The jackrabbit acquired its name from its 4- to five-inch ears, resembling those of a jackass. Unlike a true rabbit, however, jackrabbits don’t burrow, so they’re actually a hare.

In winter, the jackrabbit’s diet consists mostly of bark and buds of bushes, while preferring tender grasses in summer. In very dry periods, it will eat cacti, which are plentiful in parts of its range.

The jackrabbit is a loner, with the exception of mating, of course, which occurs throughout the year. Gestation lasts about a month and a half, with litters of one to six. The young are born covered with fur and with their eyes open, ready to rock-n-roll . Like most hares, the female does not make a nest.

You can learn more about the jackrabbit’s distant cousin, the Jackalope, here. (*wink*)

My favorite rodent

Though one of the most common critters of the Coconino National Forest, the Abert’s squirrel is my favorite to watch, with its tassled ears, fluffy tail and fat, white belly. Playful and naughty rascals, they are, and usually busy during the day year-round, running from tree to tree and up the trunks, then jumping from branch to branch. If it’s extremely cold, though, they may only venture out to look for food. At night, the squirrels sleep in their nests.

Today, my husband and I (and our leashed dog on point) watched an Abert’s squirrel as it built a large nest, scolding us now and then for staring when its mouth wasn’t full of building material. Nests are usually located in Ponderosa pines, twenty to forty feet above the ground and made with twigs and lined with grass, leaves, feathers, moss and pieces of bark.

Most of the Abert’s squirrel’s diet is made up of Ponderosa pine parts. During the warmer months, it eats the seeds and buds. In the winter, it dines on the inner bark. Occasionally, the Abert’s squirrel eats mistletoe and fungi. Unlike other North American squirrels, the Abert’s doesn’t store food.

The crow’s first cousin

Or is this my favorite critter to watch? Well, it’s a toss-up, I guess.

The raven is an intelligent and rather noisy opportunist, with an omnivorous diet that includes carrion, insects, cereal grains, berries, fruit and small animals. Oh, and Quarter-Pounders and fries too. An open trash bin is a raven’s best friend, and they certainly aren’t ones to tidy up when finished.

These playful birds have been seen glisading down snowbanks, seemingly just for fun, and even playing games with other species, like some catch-me-if-you-can with wolves and dogs (including my own). Common Ravens are known for amazing airborne acrobatics, like flying in loops, something I’ve witnessed many times at the Grand Canyon.

Ravens can mimic sounds from their environment, including human speech, and as many as 100 different vocalizations have been recorded. The raven’s non-vocal sounds include wing whistles and bill snapping, clapping and clicking. If a member of a pair is lost, its mate will reproduce the calls of its lost partner to lure it home.

With the largest brain of any bird, ravens have an uncanny ability to problem-solve. One experiment designed to evaluate this skill involved a piece of meat attached to a string hanging from a perch. To reach the food, the bird needed to stand on the perch, pull the string up little by little, and step on the loops to gradually shorten the string. Four out of five Common Ravens succeeded, with no trial-and-error learning involved.

Common Ravens have been known to manipulate other animals into doing work for them, such as calling coyotes to the site of dead animals. The coyotes open the carcass, making it accessible to the birds. Kinda like getting one’s spouse to carve a turkey.

Ravens also watch one another bury food and remember the locations of each other’s caches, so they can steal. This type of theft occurs so often that ravens will fly extended distances from a food source to find better hiding places.They’ve also been observed pretending to make a cache without actually depositing the food, presumably to confuse any other ravens trying to sneak a peak.

Ravens are known to steal and stash shiny objects such as pebbles, pieces of metal, and golf balls, possibly to use to impress other ravens. Such vanity! I love it.

Or is it “grey”?

As far as I’ve read, the only place red foxes are found in Arizona is in the extreme northeast corner, so it’s the gray (or grey?) fox we see here in the Coconino National Forest. And one shy little specimen makes its home close to ours here at the Observatory. We catch glimpses of him–or her?–from time to time when we get home late in the evening.

Gray foxes are omnivorous, feeding on both plant and animal. In the southwest, fruits are the most important part of their diet, followed by fresh deer carrion, gophers, small rodents, and even beetles and other arthropods. In Arizona, juniper berries are the most frequently eaten food in spring and summer.

Unlike their more vocal counterparts, the coyotes, gray foxes go about their nocturnal hunting very quietly. They do, however, vocalize with hoarse, loud barks when they are upset with intruders in their territories.

There’s not much cuter than a head-on shot.

And I’m not referring to a rifle … though I’ve nothing against a venison burger now and then. As long as it has lots of catsup on it.

Obviously, though, the mule deer, as the jackrabbit, gets its name from its big ears. Unlike its smaller-eared cousin, the white-tail, the mule deer’s tail is black-tipped. And its antlers “fork” as they grow, rather than branching from a single main beam, as with white-tails.

Like the elk, the mule deer’s “rut” or mating season begins in the fall, when males become more aggressive as they compete for mates. They’ve even been known to take on humans over the cause, even if the human has no intentions of the sort.

Fawns are born in the spring, staying with their mothers during the summer and being weaned after about 60-75 days. A buck’s antlers fall off during the winter, to grow again for the next season’s rut.

Ooh, I get the heebie-jeebies just thinking about them.

But the rattlesnakes in these parts generally aren’t aggressive, so if you keep your eyes and ears peeled in the brushy, desert areas, you should be able to avoid them, just as they prefer to avoid you.

Rattlesnakes frequently come out of the shadows early in the day or late afternoon to warm up by sunbathing on the warm rocks. During the heat of summer, they take cover under bushes or fallen trees, so be sure to look before sticking a hand or foot in any dark or hidden place.

One of the most common rattlers here in the Coconino National Forest is the Arizona Black Rattlesnake, with its habitat in the high elevation region, typically above 6,000 feet. Its black color is an adaption for absorbing heat.

When hiking, avoid wearing sandals and shorts. Wear long pants and leather hiking boots that cover the ankles.

For more information, check out The Rattlesnakes of Arizona, a very detailed article by James Q. Jacobs.

The rodent of 30,000 quills

I was walking home the other day, when I noticed the ground around the base of a Ponderosa littered with clumps of green pine needles on top of the snow. At first, I thought it was the work of a very hungry Abert’s squirrel

But then I looked up and saw that a number of branches were stripped clean of bark and knew right away that a porcupine had been the culprit sometime during the night. You might not think they’d be such good climbers if you happen to see one slowly waddling along the ground, but porcupines are quite skilled with their long-clawed front feet and muscular tail for balance to get themselves up a tree to find food.

The porcupine is a vegetarian, with a diet that includes inner tree bark, twigs, buds, leaves, seeds, roots and berries. Young’ns can actually climb just hours after birth to have a snack. And porcupines are particularly fond of salt, which is one reason you might run into … uh, see them on salted roads in the middle of the night.

Remember that Brady Bunch episode?

No? Well, I do–the one where Greg wakes up to find one crawling up his chest. Ugh! Luckily, that hasn’t happened to me yet, but if it does, you’ll hear me scream all the way to my creepy-crawly-free home state of Rhode Island. Sure, there were the icky little spiders on the ceiling, which my father would promptly squish so I could go to sleep, but nothing like these hairy Arizona giants.

Yep, there are even tarantulas in Flagstaff, at 7,000 feet. As a matter of fact, my husband and I were hiking up on the peaks at at least 10,000 feet, when we came across a chilly, eight-legged lady on a shaded boulder. I nearly threw up when Steve picked her up and stroked her back. He’s a crazy native, you see.

But as icky as they look (to me, anyway), I realize that these HUGE spiders are harmless to humans, except for a painful bite if you stick your finger in the right place and make them angry, and their mild venom is weaker than a typical bee’s.

Tarantulas are slow movers but skilled nocturnal predators. Insects are their main food source, but they also target larger meals, including frogs, toads and mice, grabbing them with their “arms and legs” and injecting paralyzing venom. They also secrete digestive enzymes to liquefy their preys’ bodies so they can suck them through their straw-like mouths. Mmm, milkshakes.

They may look like wild pigs…

…but they’re actually called peccaries, hoofed animals more closely related to hippos. Peccaries are omnivores and will eat small animals, though they prefer roots, grass, seeds and fruit.

One way to tell a pig from a peccary is the shape of the canine, or tusk. In pigs, the tusk is long and curves around on itself, while peccaries have short, straight tusks adapted for crushing hard seeds and slicing into plant roots. They also use their tusks for defense.

Generally, javelina are wary of people, but in a group, which is how they spend most of their time, they’ll certainly attack a dog. On the other hand, mountain lions consider javelina to be a tasty treat.

Using washes and areas with dense vegetation as travel corridors, javelina are most active at night, but may be active during the day when it’s cold.

The adults weigh between 40 and 60 pounds, with young born year-round but most often November through March. On average, javelina live 7.5 years.

Not long ago, my in-laws, who live in Sedona, Arizona, had at least 20 javelina in their garage. They’d forgotten to close the door one night–oops–so the group decided to help themselves to a large tub full of birdseed, then hung around to wait for more. In the morning, when the invasion was discovered, some banging of pots and pans quickly ushered the herd back outside.

To learn more about this adorable (*cough*) creature, visit Living With Javelina from the Arizona Game & Fish Department.

may look like a toad…

…but it’s actually a lizard. The popular name comes from the lizard’s rounded body and blunt snout, which make it resemble a toad or frog.

Some of the neatest aspects of horned lizards, or horny toads, are the ways they defend themselves from predators. Their coloration serves as camouflages, so the first thing they usually try when threatened is to remain still and hope to avoid detection. If that doesn’t work, they’ll try running in short bursts, stop abruptly to confuse the predator’s visual acuity. Another trick in their grab bag is to puff themselves up in an attempt to look larger and more difficult to swallow. (Kinda like a frog in the throat … but not.)

And this is really cool: at least four species are also able to squirt an aimed stream of blood from the corners of their eyes for a distance of up to 5 feet. This is done by restricting the blood flow from the head, increasing blood pressure and rupturing tiny vessels around the eyelids. Apparently, the blood tastes pretty gross to canine and feline predators, though it has no effect against predatory birds.

When it comes to feathered predators, horny toads will duck or elevate their head and orient their cranial horns straight up or back, to avoid being picked up by the head or neck. If a predator tries to grab the horny toad by the body, it’ll drive that side of its body into the ground so the predator can’t easily get its lower jaw underneath the lizard.

Why, those crafty horny toads!

When my parents first moved to Northern Arizona from Rhode Island, they noticed this strange little creature sunning itself on a railroad tie garden border near their front porch. They named him Elmo. Elmo would come out to say hello at least once a day for months and even returned the following spring, after burying himself (we assumed it was a he) to hibernate for the winter. One day, though, Elmo didn’t return to his sunny spot on the railroad tie and was never seen again.

may look scary…

…and they are! Figured I’d save the creepiest of the creepies for the last critter on my list. When I saw my first tarantula wasp–or tarantula “hawk”–I broke out in a cold sweat and swear I nearly passed out. I contemplated moving back to Rhode Island right then and there.

Up to two inches long with a blue-black body and bright rust-colored wings, tarantula hawks are among the largest of wasps. They use the hooked claws on the ends of their long legs to grab their victims, hunting tarantulas as food for their larvae. *Shudder*

Now, here’s the really gross part. The tarantula wasp captures, stings, and paralyzes the spider, then they either drag the spider back into their own burrow or transport their prey to a specially prepared nest where a single egg is laid on the spider’s body. Then the entrance to the prison cell is covered. Upon hatching, the wasp larva starts sucking the juices from the still-living spider. As the larva grows, it feeds on the tarantula, avoiding vital organs for as long as possible to keep it fresh. Finally, the adult wasp emerges from the nest to continue the life cycle.

Oatmeal, anyone?

Though my calm, cool and collected husband assured me these humungous wasps aren’t aggressive, I’ve read that the sting is among the most painful of any insect. So I prefer to run, screaming, from the general vicinity when I see one.

To learn more about this hair-raising creature, visit the Tarantula Hawks page on

The rarest Coconino County critter of them all….

In fact, the ramkitten (Felis hornicus) is even rarer than the jackalope. Once thought to be the result of a conjugal union between a hard-headed, hot-blooded ram and a curious and playful, underage cat, the ramkitten is actually a unique species unto itself. This creature is well adapted to many habitats and has been spotted in the tropics, the alpine tundra, the desert, deciduous forest, and Rhode Island. Often on the move, the ramkitten is difficult to locate, but can sometimes be enticed with its favorite foods, which include sushi, french fries and frozen yogurt.

I’ve used mine so much, it’s coming apart at the seams.

Those Forest Service roads can–or I should say WILL–be very confusing without this, so I would take it with you all the time while exploring the Coconino National Forest.