Birds

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is an oasis in the desert.  Its deep sandstone canyons provide a perennial water supply, cool temperatures and a wide variety of vegetation which serves as ideal habitat for many birds species.  In fact, more than 100 bird species have been identified within Red Rock Canyon.

Many birds exhibit specific behavioral traits which allow them to survive in arid lands. 

Eagles and hawks conserve water by soaring in high altitude air currents where strong winds allow them to stay aloft with little exertion and temperatures can be 20 degrees cooler than at ground level.  Obtaining water is no problem for these birds; their water needs are satisfied by eating the moisture-rich flesh of small animals.  The dark silhouettes of the red-tailed hawk, Cooper’s hawk, golden eagle and other raptors can be seen against the blue sky.

Some birds have learned to use desert plants, especially those of the cactus family, for protection of captured prey. 

Cactus Wren

The cactus wren, identified by its down turned bill, heavily streaked body and fan shaped tail, uses the spiny branches of the cholla cactus to protect its nests.  The nests, which resemble a football, are built from desert plant stems and flower stalks.  Up to 10 nests may be built by one pair of cactus wrens, but only one will be used to raise young.  The unoccupied nests may serve to confuse and frustrate predators not hampered by cholla spines.  The cactus wren does not wander far from its nests, rather it hunts succulent spiders, insects and larvae in the nearby vicinity. 

A few birds have not only adapted behaviorally, but also have special body modifications to meet the demands of desert life. 

Loggerhead Shrike

The loggerhead shrike, though a predatory bird, has weak feet and is unable to hold struggling prey in its grasp.  To immobilize prey, the shrike will often impale it on cactus spines.  It will eat the prey immediately or allow it to sun dry for later consumption. 

Roadrunner

One such bird is the roadrunner.  This desert member of the cuckoo family is a large bird about the size of a chicken.  It is heavily streaked, has a bristle tipped crest and a long tail.  It is most easily identified, however, by its habit of streaking across the desert on foot, much like the roadrunner cartoon character.  It rarely flies, but will make short, hopping flights to escape danger or aid in the capture of lizards, snakes, ground squirrels and insects.  These prey have a high percentage of body moisture which satisfies the roadrunner’s need for water.  The roadrunner pants to keep cool and voids excess blood salts through special nasal glands similar to those found in marine birds.  Watch for this lively bird throughout the 13-Mile Scenic Drive.

Many birds found in the Red Rock Canyon have no special behavioral or body adaptations.  Only the presence of water in perennial streams or potholes after rains allows them to survive in this area. Such birds include the rufous-sided towhee, mourning dove, whie-throated swift, chukar and Gambel’s quail.

Rufous-sided Towhee

The rufous-sided towhee is usually seen in oak tree and shrub vegetation near water.  Its red sides, dark head and black and white underbelly identify this bird.  It has a strong bill for crushing seeds, but it will also eat insects and berries.

The mourning dove, recognized by its plump, brown body and wedge shaped tail, needs daily drinking water in order to survive.  It arrives in red Rock during the spring months and constructs flimsy nests on shrubs or the branches of the cholla cactus within one mile of water.  These nests often fall apart during high winds or stormy weather, killing the young.  However, the high reproductive rate of these birds allows a few nests to be lost without much harm to the overall productivity of the breeding pair.  The parents feed their young a white liquid produced in their crop; the liquid is so rich in protein that young can fly in 10 days.  Some young doves have left the nest within one month.  The parents will then begin a new nest.  Adult morning doves may raise up to six separate groups of young per breeding season in this manner.  Watch for this bird as it flies to and from water sources throughout Red Rock Canyon.

The white-throated swift is a small bird with long narrow, stiff wings and a short tail.  It can be distinguished from other swifts by the contrasting black and white pattern on its underside.  Its small size and pointed wings grant it great speed and maneuverability that aid in the capture of insects.  Swifts are frequently seen flying in steep canyons and over pools of water throughout the area.

Gambel's Quail

Both chukar and Gambel’s quail need a supply of water to supplement the moisture they derive from the seeds they eat.  Although in the same family, they prefer different habitats within the conservation area.  The Gambel’s quail occurs in the desert thickets near washes, while the chukar prefers steep, rocky slopes where grasses are plentiful.  Both rely on their feet for travel, but will make sustained flights in times of danger.

Many more bird species inhabit the Red Rock Canyon.  Click here for a full list. 

Mammals

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area may seem rugged and desolate at first glance, but a closer look reveals an area teeming with wildlife.  The desert often brings to mind snakes and lizards, but mammals too, inhabit these lands. In fact, more than 45 species of mammals occur in the Red Rock Canyon.  The presence of cool temperatures, perennial water and a variety of plant species in the sandstone canyons provide escape from desert heat and aridity, making the conservation area a suitable habitat for wildlife.

Desert mammals can be divided into broad categories:  carnivores (meat eaters), small and large herbivores (plant eaters), and insectivores (insect eaters).  All must conform to specific behavioral traits to survive in such arid lands.  Most desert mammals are nocturnal, which means active during the night.  Besides being nocturnal, many adopt other water-saving habits as well.  

Carnivores

Carnivores are predators and chiefly eat meat, although some will consume plants.  They will drink water when it is available, but are not dependent on it since the moisture-rich flesh of their prey satisfies their water needs.  This group includes such well known members as the coyote, kit fox, gray fox, bobcat and mountain lion.

Coyote

A member of the dog family, the coyote resembles its domestic cousins except that its nose is more pointed and its tail is bushier.  The coyote is a very vocal mammal, communicating through barks and howls.  Its scientific name, Canis latrans, literally means ‘barking dog.” In addition to being a predator, the coyote is an omnivore (plant and animal eater) and a scavenger.  This varied diet allows the coyote to exist under the desert’s harsh conditions and is one reason why the coyote is now the most widespread mammal in the United States.  It can be seen occasionally from the 13-Mile Scenic Drive.

gray fox

The gray fox also has a varied diet, but not to the extent of the coyote.  It hunts widely at night, subsisting on rodents, ground squirrels, birds, wild fruit, insects, amphibians and small reptiles.  It is an adept climber and will often search for food or escape danger by climbing trees.

Kit Fox

Weighing only five pounds, the kit fox is the smallest dog in the United States.  It survives by being nocturnal and sleeping in the shade of a tree or in its den during the hot part of the day. Its large ears and sharp sense of smell help it to catch prey.  Usually the kit fox seeks kangaroo rats, but lizards, insects, birds and rabbits will also be eaten.  Watch for this elusive creature alongside the road as you drive through the desert at night.

Bobcat

The bobcat, the most abundant cat in the southwestern United States, also resides in the area.  It spends most of the day under bushes, usually in rock fractures or canyons.  The bobcat has little endurance and stalks prey rather than chasing it.  It primarily eats rodents, but will take rabbits, ground-nesting birds, and occasionally, a young deer.  Because of its nocturnal nature, it is not often seen unless disturbed from its daytime resting place.

Small Herbivores

This group includes the rodents, rabbits and hares.  As herbivores, they primarily eat plants, although some will supplement their diet with insects and dead or decaying flesh.  They rely on their diet to satisfy both their food and water needs.  Some small herbivores found in Red Rock Canyon are the antelope ground squirrel, kangaroo rat, pack rat, blacktail jack rabbit and desert cottontail.  Although most mammals in this group are nocturnal, the antelope ground squirrel is undaunted by the desert sun.  This rodent is often seen from the 13-Mile Scenic Drive during the hottest parts of the day, with its white tail held close over its back as it runs about. To cool off, it may go below ground but usually flattens its body against the soil in a shaded area and loses heat through conduction.  Although it can drop its body temperature by as much as seven degrees in this manner, it can lose 13 percent of its body moisture per day.  To make up for this water loss, it feeds on green leaves and drinks early morning dew.

Kangaroo Rat

The kangaroo rat, named for its habit of hopping rather than running, does not drink, use dew or eat succulent foods.  Its only source of moisture comes from metabolic water, water produced through the digestion of food.  However, digestion creates very little water, so the kangaroo rat must conserve every drop.  Its nasal passages are much cooler than its internal body temperature.  Air which passes through these nasal passages cools and water condenses on the mucous membranes, where it is absorbed.  The kidneys of the kangaroo rat are also very efficient, producing a urine four to five times as concentrated as human’s. Additionally, the kangaroo rat has adapted behavior to survive in the desert.  It spends the hot days underground where the temperature is 30 °F (17 °C) cooler and the humidity is much higher.  Seeds are stored in the burrow where they absorb additional moisture before being eaten.

Unlike rodents, rabbits and hares have two pair of upper incisors, one right behind the other. Thus, they are not classified as rodents, but as Lagamorpha, literally “animals of rabbit-like form.”  Rabbits differ from hare in that their young are born naked and blind, while young hares are born furred and sighted.  The blacktail jack rabbit, contrary to its name, is a hare.  To escape the heat it sits in “forms” during the day.  Forms are shallow depressions near the base of plants where soil and air temperatures are cooler.  Its enormous ears also provide a surface over which heat loss can occur. 

Desert Cottontail

The desert cottontail, a true rabbit, prefers brushier areas than the jack rabbit, such as rocky canyons, floors of dry washes and river beds; mesquite and catclaw thickets are preferred. Unlike jack rabbits, it retreats into burrows to escape heat and danger.  Both cottontails and jack rabbits are very prolific.  However, their numbers are kept low by predation and disease. Watch for these two mammals throughout the 13-Mile Scenic Drive.

Large Herbivores

Mule deer and desert bighorn sheep can also be found within Red Rock Canyon.  Large herbivores derive some moisture from their plant food but unlike the small herbivores, also need drinking water periodically.  The mule deer prefers foothills with low scrub growth or thick growth along washes.  By late evening, it leaves its daytime hiding place to find water in seeps and springs.

Desert Bighorn Sheep

The desert bighorn sheep prefers steep, rocky terrain which provides escape from enemies and shelter from the weather. There are more than 13,000 acres of such habitat inRed Rock Canyon. The bighorn survives in the desert by traveling to water.  It will not live more than two miles from a permanent water source.  It may expand its range after rains fill more potholes, or tinajas, but such expansions are only temporary.  The horns of the bighorn are formed by a bony structure at the base of the skull and are made of material called keratin.  It takes about ten years for a ram horn to reach full size and they are often worn by butting and rubbing.  Watch for these magnificent mammals on rocky cliffs throughout the area.

Insectivores

This group includes bats and shrews and primarily consumes insects.  Bats are separated from all other mammals by possessing the power of true flight.  To escape the heat and avoid competition with birds, they are active only at night.  Seldom using their vision, they rely on echo location to find prey and avoid obstacles.  To echo locate, the bat emits a series of chirps and clicks from its throat.  These sounds reflect off nearby objects, informing the bat of moving insects or stationary obstacles.  The odd facial structures of many species aid in the reception of the reflected sound.  Although the majority of bats eat insects, a few feed on the nectar of flowers.  These bats have long tongues with hair or bristles on the tip to allow them to reach in to gather nectar.  Thus, bats serve not only to control disease-carrying insects, but act as pollinators as well.

Shrews are very small mammals which spend most of their lives underground.  They have reduced eyes and rely on their sense of smell and touch to locate insects.  A voracious eater, the shrew is also a ferocious hunter, for to be without food for more than six or seven hours means certain death.  Being an underground dweller, they are rarely seen.  

Many more mammals live in Red Rock Canyon.  Each has it own interesting adaptations for desert survival.  Take the time to observe and learn about the mammals and other life forms in the area.  Only through close observation can the desert and its associated plant and animal life be truly appreciated.

Reptiles

Desert Tortoise

The desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) is a gentle reptile which spends much of its life in underground burrows. The burrows are excavated by the animals to escape the harsh summer and winter weather conditions of the desert.

The animal historically occupied a range that included the desert in southeastern California, southern Nevada, western and southern Arizona, southwestern Utah, and Sonora and northern Sinaloa, Mexico. Today, the creature’s populations are largely fragmented, although it can be found in declining numbers in most parts of its former range.

Tortoise emerge from their burrows in late winter or early spring and in the autumn to feed and mate.

The reptile can be active during the summer if temperatures are moderate. The desert tortoise is the largest reptile in the southwest. Unlike other reptiles which are often feared by man, the desert tortoise is an appealing creature which has become a popular pet, perhaps to its detriment. One reason for its appeal is that the animal is not a threat, but rather a vegetarian, eating a wide variety of herbaceous vegetation. One of its treats is the flower of annual plants.

Tortoise emerge from their burrows in late winter or early spring and in the autumn to feed and mate.

The reptile can be active during the summer if temperatures are moderate.  The desert tortoise is the largest reptile in the southwest. Unlike other reptiles which are often feared by man, the desert tortoise is an appealing creature which has become a popular pet, perhaps to its detriment. One reason for its appeal is that the animal is not a threat, but rather a vegetarian, eating a wide variety of herbaceous vegetation.  One of its treats is the flower of annual plants.

Unfortunately, the slow moving reptile is vulnerable to a number of threats which could led to the demise of the species.  These concerns lead to a petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1984 to consider listing the desert tortoise under the Federal Endangered Species Act.  After further evaluation and public hearings, the tortoise was permanently listed as threatened on April 2, 1990.

Major problems which appear to affect the tortoise in all or part of its range include:

  • Loss or degradation of habitat because of off-road vehicles, military desert training maneuvers, various kinds of mineral extraction activities, grazing by cattle and sheep, and agricultural-residential development.
  • Taking of individuals for pets and other forms of collection.  Also, some animals have been killed outright or their shells mutilated in acts of vandalism.
  • Excessive predation of juveniles by other species such as coyotes, foxes and ravens.
  • Fragmentation of populations because of urbanization, highways and various rights-of-way associated with electric transmission lines, pipelines, etc.
  • A respiratory disease has been found in some tortoise populations, and it is suspected the disease may have been introduced by infected tortoise pets whose owners have returned them to the wild.

What protection comes with a listing?

Under the provisions of the Endangered Species Act, the desert tortoise population is protected from “taking,” which includes harming, killing or harassing desert tortoise or removing them from the wild.  Violations are punishable by a fine and jail term.  The law requires Federal agencies to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service if a proposed project they plan to authorize, fund or carry out may affect the species.  The Section 7 consultation process evaluates the impacts of the proposed action and determines whether the proposed action might jeopardize the continued existence of the species.

The Endangered Species Act — Section 10(a)(1)(A) — permits taking of tortoises for research. It is under this provision that the tortoises in The Desert Tortoise Conservation Center have been obtained. The tortoises in this center have been brought to this location under a joint research permit held by the Bureau of Land Management, the Nevada Department of Wildlife and The Nature Conservancy.