A Field Guide To SoCal’s Iconic Wildlife (And Where To Find Them)
By Ryan Fonseca
Published July 22, 2019
We can’t think of many places you could see wild bears, parrots, mountain lions, whales and buffalo (yup!) all in the same day, but this is Southern California — and you totally could. Our region’s bountiful mix of deserts, forests, mountains and ocean draws tens of thousands of visitors each year to take in all that natural splendor, including our iconic wildlife.
So, fellow explorers, here’s an informal guide to some of the animals you might encounter in cities, on the urban edge or out in the wild. One thing to keep in mind, though: humans are the source of many animals’ problems, so be respectful and look for ways to reduce your impact on the land we share with them.
Scientific name: Canis latrans
Known locally as: Pet-eaters, city dingos
Where to find them: All over the place. Coyotes are opportunists that have adapted masterfully to SoCal’s urban-wildlife interface, and it’s not uncommon to see them roaming neighborhood streets after sunset. Of course, that’s led to plenty of concerns (and sadly, dead pets).
Facts: If coyotes are coming into your neighborhood, it’s probably your fault (or your neighbors’). A recent National Park Service study found the vast majority of urban coyotes’ diet — 75% — is human-related resources, including human garbage, cats (many of them feral and fed by well-meaning humans) and — to researchers’ surprise — fruit from ornamental plants, like palm and fig trees.
So secure trash, keep pet food (and pets) inside, and get rid of low-hanging fruit — literally.
Eastern fox squirrel
Scientific name: Sciurus niger
Known locally as: Future roadkill
Where to find them: Scurrying up trees, defying death in the street, getting their heads stuck in things
Facts: It’s not uncommon for native Angelenos to bristle at transplants and bellow, “They’re ruining L.A.!” But the struggle was real in the early 1900s, when eastern fox squirrels were brought to the region as pets by veterans of the Civil and Spanish-American wars. As the folklore goes, the squirrels were set loose and soon expanded across the Southland with perfect timing as the region grew into what it is today.
So, early 20th century transplants introduced a rodent transplant, which now dominates the territory. L.A.’s actually native western gray squirrel is a much pickier eater, whereas their eastern cousins will eat just about anything. The eastern invader’s penchant for hijinks and junk food has made it the unofficial mascot at Cal State Northridge (please don’t feed them Hot Cheetos).
Scientific name: Tursiops truncatus
Known locally as: Is that a shark?!?
Where to find them: All along the Southern California Bight, though they do move seasonally up the coast to the Monterey Bay area. These cetaceans are a common sight for beachgoers and can be spotted playing in the shallows and even surfing waves alongside humans.
Facts: They are very social animals and often live in pods of hundreds of fellow dolphins. Some humans sleepwalk, but dolphins sleep-swim! They have the ability to rest one side of their brain at a time, allowing them to sleep while still surfacing to breathe.
Because of their peg-like teeth and weak chewing muscles, dolphins swallow their prey whole and can consume up to 32 pounds of fish in a day.
Dolphins are very intelligent and use a system of clicks, squeaks and whistles to communicate with each other. They even have unique names in their native tongue and will respond when they hear it. Dolphins also like to check themselves out in the mirror, just like us!
Scientific name: Buteo jamaicensis
Known locally as: Is that a vulture?
Where to find them: Up in the air all over SoCal. If you notice a bird gliding high above, pay attention to its tail feathers. If they gleam red in the sun, you know it’s this hawk. Red-tails don’t typically hang out down in neighborhoods, so if you spot a raptor perched in your backyard tree, it’s likely a Cooper’s hawk, which is smaller, lighter and likes to hunt other birds from treetops.
Facts: They scream like banshees. In fact, their piercing call is so dynamic, Hollywood stole their sonic thunder and successfully made it synonymous with the bald eagle in pop culture. So the next time you hear that trademark “eagle scream” in a movie or TV show and see America’s mascot soaring in the sky, remember that bird is a big, feathered phony (the bald eagle’s real-life call is...cute at best).
Red-tails are partial migrants, meaning some take seasonal journeys and others don't. That’s why you can spot them soaring over L.A. year-round.
Our region’s rat population is lower thanks to this raptor’s rodent-rich diet. But red-tailed hawks and other predators are at risk for serious illness and death because of humans’ use of rat poison, which is why the National Park Service urges people to stop using them around their homes.
Scientific name: Puma concolor
Known locally as: Cougar, puma (yes, the mountain lion goes by many names, but it’s the same big cat)
Where to find them: Our local lions have ranges in the Santa Monica, San Gabriel and Santa Ana mountains.
Facts: Mountain lions are very stealthy and elusive. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife says cougars often coexist around people “unseen and unheard.” But don’t let the fact that they could be close by scare you — mountain lion attacks are exceptionally rare. There’s been just 16 verified mountain lion attacks on humans in the state since 1890, CADFW says.
Sadly, the biggest threat facing L.A.’s big cats is — you guessed it —people. More specifically, the fact that our freeways have cut many local lions off from moving out to new territory, limiting their opportunity for diverse mating. Inbreeding is a huge problem in the Santa Monica and Santa Ana mountains, so much so that our local cougars could vanish completely in the next 50 years. One solution: building wildlife crossings over cougar-killing freeways so they can safely travel across and make their way to other mountain ranges. But we’ll have to wait until at least 2022 to get just one built. The predators are also at high risk of ingesting rat poison that humans introduce to their food chain, which has sickened and killed several mountain lions in just the past few years.
Scientific name: Amazona viridigenalis
Known locally as: Evil alarm clocks
Where to find them: Rudely awakening people in the San Gabriel Valley
Facts: A group of parrots is called a "pandemonium” — a perfect description for how these birds will drive you crazy. These colorful squawkers are no stranger to SGV residents used to getting an earful every morning and evening like clockwork.
They may be annoying, but the fact that they’re flourishing in SoCal is good news for the species, which is endangered in their native Mexico. (Sidenote: the red-crowns aren’t the only parrot species you can spot in Southern California. Just ask Andy Richter.)
Scientific name: Ursus americanus
Known locally as: Pool crashers, trash munchers
Where to find them: Pretty much anywhere there are mountains in California, but more likely on local TV news when they wander into L.A.’s foothill neighborhoods to look for food and water, cool off in a backyard pool or wreck a fence. Just be careful texting and walking or you might miss one. At least one bear reached celebrity status several years ago after his love of Italian food captivated the nation — but especially Glendale (the city even featured him in their 2013 Rose Parade float).
Facts: While their names are color-based, don’t let that fool you: black bears can in fact be brown. And anytime you do see a brown-colored bear in the wild in SoCal, it’s technically a black bear. The actual brown bear is what we commonly call a grizzly bear, and is no longer found in California (don’t tell the state flag). In fact, our current black bears are descendants from transplants from Northern California, brought here from Yosemite by the Fish and Game Service in 1933.
You may have heard that the bears were coming into neighborhoods because of the drought in the region and figured their newsworthy visits would stop now that the drought is over. Think again. Local wildlife experts say decades of learned behavior mean the bears won’t break their habits of commuting for an easy meal and pool party. So we can still look forward to news footage of bears getting darted and goofily falling from trees.
Scientific name: Lynx rufus
Known locally as: Robertcat in formal settings
Where to find them: Santa Monica and San Gabriel mountains locally, but bobcats are common all over North America.
Bobcats have also been hemmed in by local roadways, which has led to inbreeding, lower genetic diversity and many getting killed by cars.
There’s a misconception that bobcats don’t have tails, but they do! They’re just much shorter than most other felines (best not to bring it up in case they’re self-conscious about it).
And bobcat kittens are viciously cute, in case you were wondering.
Scientific name: Pavo cristatus
Known locally as: Colorful squawkers, Arcadia’s mascot
Where to find them: Most famously strutting their stuff at the L.A. Arboretum (there are more than 200 peafowl there!) But peafowl can be found in several Los Angeles communities, stretching from Sylmar to San Pedro.
Facts: Peafowl were first brought to the San Gabriel Valley from India in 1879 by the wealthy land baron Elias Jackson “Lucky” Baldwin.
Just like chickens, males are called peacocks, while the females are called peahens (and lack the long, colorful tail of feathers the males like to flaunt).
California sea lion
Scientific name: Zalophus californianus
Known locally as: Dog mermaids
Where to find them: All along the Pacific coast, from Alaska to Central Mexico. Locally, Redondo Beach is known for its abundance of sea lions (maybe an overabundance) and the pinnipeds have an island sanctuary out at Channel Islands.
Facts: They’re better surfers than you. A beachgoer in Dana Point captured video of a sea lion charging down a small set a few years ago. Marine mammalogists say this is actually pretty common behavior.
Despite their dopiness on land, sea lions are speedsters in the water, swimming up to 25 miles per hour. That’s faster than just about anything else in the ocean, aside from mako and great white sharks.
Scientific name: Procyon lotor
Known locally as: Trash panda
Where to find them: In an attic, dumpster and sewer near you
Facts: They’re insatiable, clever little critters. If you have them in your neighborhood, you know they will stop at nothing to get at whatever food you have. Their creepy, dexterous front paws make them great problem solvers — if that problem is “there is food I want that I currently do not have.”
It’s unlikely they’ll raise their armies from the sewers and lay waste to our civilization, but their street smarts mean they’ll be stealing cat food and crashing office pizza parties for the foreseeable future. You’re not safe in the water, either.
Catalina Island buffalo
Scientific name: Bison bison (for real)
Known locally as: Bearded island cows
Where to find them: You don’t have to roadtrip to Yellowstone to see our national mammal. Just take the ferry to Catalina Island, where a herd has been roaming for nearly a century.
Facts: How did buffalos get on an island, you ask? Turns out, bison are great swimmers.
That was a joke. A small herd was brought to the island for a film shoot in the 1920s, then marooned there (Hollywood wasn’t embracing the whole “treat animals ethically” approach back then). But the buffalo herd flourished, growing to about 150, with free-range over the island. Local conservationists do manage the population, though, via bison birth control.
Illustrations by Dan Carino for LAist
Editor’s note: Special thanks to KPCC producer Lita Martinez, L.A. Audubon Society member Brad Rumble, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the National Park Service for sharing their wildlife wisdom.
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