California’s diverse and expansive landscape provides a home to an impressive variety of wildlife. With climates ranging from mountains to deserts, and from chaparrals to coastal mountains, every corner of this state is teeming with life. Common animals found all over 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).
Table of Contents
But California’s ecological abundance does not just stop at the land, as the Pacific Ocean is home to a whole other world of animals. From the small invertebrates that call the kelp forests home, to the large and majestic whales that migrate through the waters, California truly offers an impressive array of fauna and flora.
Whether you’re an adrenaline junkie itching to skydive over San Diego or a history buff who wants to explore the iconic Alcatraz Island, California has something to offer everyone. You can’t help but fall in love with the vibrant city of Los Angeles or marvel at the beauty of Yosemite National Park. And let’s not forget about the unique and diverse wildlife that calls California home, such as the majestic grey whales migrating along the coast.
Wildlife in California: Species
California has an impressive terrestrial mammal fauna, boasting about 160 species. While a majority of these species are rodents, the state still holds a significant number of unique mammals that aren’t found elsewhere in the country. About 30 species are exclusive to the state’s desert regions, making them especially rare finds in the Mediterranean-climate region that dominates a significant portion of California. It’s undeniable that California’s diverse fauna is a testament to the state’s natural richness, with a remarkable variety of native species that can be found nowhere else in the world.
Bobcats and mountain lions are among the largest animals present today. Other terrestrial mammals residing in California include coyotes, foxes, raccoons, skunks, weasels, rabbits, and deer.
Cougars/ Mountain Lions
Mountain lions, also known as cougars, are not facing threats of extinction in California. Their population in the state is relatively abundant and stable, leading to their classification as “specially protected species.”
Where to see them
In California, mountain lions can be found in various habitats, ranging from deserts to humid coast range forests, and their habitats can span from sea level to elevations as high as 10,000 feet. These majestic creatures are most commonly found in areas rich in deer population, as they primarily feed on them.
The average population density of mountain lions, as agreed upon by most biologists, is approximately 1.7 lions per 100 square kilometers of habitat. With California having around 185,000 square kilometers of suitable habitat, it can be estimated that the entire state is home to approximately 3,100 resident mountain lions.
Bobcats, also known as wildcats, are about twice the size of an average housecat. They possess long legs, large paws, and tufted ears similar to their larger relative, the Canada lynx. Their fur color is usually brown or brownish red with a white underbelly and a short, black-tipped tail. Despite their cute appearance, these fierce predators are found all across North America, living solitary and territorial lives.
Coyotes, whose name is derived from the Aztec word “coyotl,” inhabit a vast range from Alaska to Central America, with a significant presence on the Great Plains. As members of the Canidae family, they share similarities with wolves, dogs, foxes, and jackals. In California, coyotes (Canis latrans) are highly adaptable and can be found almost everywhere in the state, except for the central areas of major metropolitan cities. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates a population of 250,000 to 750,000 coyotes in the state.
The red fox, the largest true fox species, is widely distributed across the Northern Hemisphere, including most of North America. Among North America’s wild dogs, the fox is the smallest but is renowned for its intelligence and adaptability.
Where to see them
These species’ populations have been growing and gradually spreading throughout California. Bobcats can be found in lowland areas such as the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys, the San Francisco Bay-Delta area, the Southern California Coast Range, the Coastal Plain, and even in major urban areas. Similarly, coyotes have also been spotted throughout the state, except in the centers of major cities.
Gray Wolves, scientifically known as Canis lupus, are native to California but were likely eliminated from the state in the 1920s. However, in recent times, wolves have been making a comeback in California due to individual wolves dispersing from populations in other states. Presently, the known wild gray wolves in California include the Lassen Pack and three apparent lone wolves, as reported.
Black Bears are another prominent species in California, with a conservatively estimated statewide population ranging between 30,000 and 40,000 bears. The state recognizes two subspecies of black bears: the northwestern black bear (Ursus americana altifrontalis) and the California black bear.
For those interested in encountering bears, two of California’s national parks offer such opportunities. Yosemite National Park and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are home to hundreds of black bears, providing visitors with a chance to observe these magnificent animals 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 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.
California is home to a diverse array of reptiles, with a total of 23 species, including pond turtles, lizards, and snakes, among which the Garter snake is most commonly encountered.
The giant garter snake is a significant native snake species in North America, reaching impressive lengths of up to 64 inches. It is exclusively found in California’s Central Valley, originally inhabiting natural wetlands. However, extensive wetland destruction due to agricultural, urban, and industrial development has led to the loss of over 90 percent of suitable habitat for these snakes, pushing them to heavily rely on rice fields and managed marsh areas.
California is a birdwatcher’s paradise, boasting over 600 bird species, which represents about two-thirds of all bird species in North America. Among these, you can spot various enchanting birds such as the tiny Calliope Hummingbird, the elegant Black Phoebe, and the majestic California Condor.
The California quail is the most commonly encountered bird species in California. These quails predominantly inhabit the west coast regions of the United States, favoring open woodlands, bushy foothills, and valleys. They are often found in chaparral, sagebrush, oak woodlands, and foothill forests across California and the Northwest. Interestingly, they show a remarkable tolerance to human presence and can be frequently observed in city parks, suburban gardens, and agricultural areas.
Since 1782, the Bald Eagle has served as the national emblem of the United States and holds deep spiritual significance for native peoples. During winter, Bald Eagles can be spotted throughout most of California, frequenting lakes, reservoirs, rivers, rangelands, and coastal wetlands. The state’s breeding habitats for Bald Eagles are primarily located in the mountain and foothill forests and woodlands near reservoirs, lakes, and rivers.
California’s coastal waters are home to a rich variety of marine mammals, including harbor seals, elephant seals, sea lions, sea otters, killer whales, and several species of whales, such as blue, fin, humpback, gray, minke, and orcas.
To catch a glimpse of gray whales and orcas, the best time to visit Northern California is from December to May. Humpbacks are commonly seen from May to November, while the majestic blue whales, the largest animals on Earth, can be spotted between July and October. Gray whales, orcas, humpbacks, minke, finback, and blue whales migrate along the California coast throughout the year, making whale-watching excursions an opportunity to witness these magnificent creatures. The annual migration of gray whales occurs from December to April, but whales can be seen in these waters year-round. The awe-inspiring blue whales, which can grow over 30 meters long, are more frequently observed between May and October.
Where to See Whales:
For whale-watching, some excellent spots along the California coast include Mendocino, where whales frequently swim by on their journey, San Diego’s La Jolla area, several locations in Orange County, San Francisco, and Monterey.
Southern sea otters can be found along California’s central coast, ranging from San Mateo County in the north to near Santa Barbara in the south. Northern sea otters are located along the coasts of Alaska and Washington, while Russian otters inhabit the Pacific Ocean off Russia and Japan.
Guadalupe Fur Seals:
Belonging to the “eared seal” family, along with sea lions, Guadalupe fur seals are primarily found in their preferred mating grounds of Guadalupe Island and, more recently, the San Benito Islands. Once considered extinct, they are now recognized as the rarest fur seal species.
Northern Elephant Seals:
The northern elephant seal population, currently around 150,000, with 124,000 in California waters, has rebounded to near its pre-overhunting size. These seals can be observed year-round at the Piedras Blancas Rookery, with the best viewing times being from October to May, and the peak of birthing and breeding occurring in January and February.
California Sea Lion:
The California sea lion is a sleek and fast marine mammal, capable of reaching speeds of up to 25 miles per hour. As “eared seals,” they are native to the West Coast of North America, residing in coastal waters and on beaches, docks, buoys, and jetties.
Best Wildlife Locations
Exploring the national parks of California can be an unforgettable experience, with each one offering its own brand of scenery, wildlife, and adventure. Whether you’re in search of dramatic mountain ranges, blazing deserts, or peaceful forests, there’s something for everyone.
Death Valley National Park:
Situated in central California, Death Valley National Park is renowned for being one of the hottest, driest, and lowest places in the country. Despite its extreme conditions, the park offers stunning landscapes, including sculptural canyons, undulating sand dunes, diverse wildlife, and a breathtakingly luminous sky. Among its diverse wildlife are coyotes, bobcats, desert bighorn sheep, various bat species, gophers, kangaroo rats, mountain and desert cottontails, foxes, badgers, ringtails, and even some mountain lions.
Yosemite National Park:
Spanning 1,200 square miles in northern California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, Yosemite National Park is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts. Activities such as hiking, rock climbing, horseback riding, rafting, skiing, and snowboarding are popular here. The park’s diverse landscape supports over 400 species of vertebrates, including fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals, making it a paradise for wildlife lovers.
Lake Tahoe and Tahoe National Forest:
Lake Tahoe, formed about two million years ago in the Lake Tahoe Basin, is renowned for its clear waters and picturesque mountain views. The lake, shared by Nevada and California, attracts numerous tourists. Tahoe National Forest, surrounding the lake, is home to more than 290 types of animals and over 1,000 plant species. Of particular concern is the presence of 305 California wildlife species listed on the official endangered species list, including residents like the Sierra Red Fox, Lahontan Cutthroat Trout, and the Mountain Beaver, among other unique animals in California.
Tour Operators for Wildlife in California
Safari West in Sonoma County, California, has served as a sanctuary for animals for many years, even amidst wildfires, with a strong focus on animal conservation. If you seek an authentic safari experience, the Sonoma Serengeti Safari West offers an incredible opportunity.
For those interested in exploring the magnificent Yosemite National Park, Yexplore tours provide exclusive and customizable tours. Whether you are a traveler or a wildlife enthusiast, their website presents exciting opportunities to discover the wonders of Yosemite.
What type of wildlife does California have?
California is a haven for wildlife lovers. This state’s diverse ecosystems are home to a wide variety of flora and fauna. Visitors can encounter animals ranging from brown bears to bottlenose dolphins. The state’s mountains and deserts are home to bighorn sheep, mountain lions, and bobcats. California also has a rich birdlife, with over 640 species flocking to the area. The state’s marine life is just as impressive, with sea otters, elephant seals, and dolphins swimming in its waters.
Is there wildlife in California?
California may be best known for its stunning beaches, world-class cities, and booming technology industry, but it’s also a hub for diverse wildlife. From the majestic grizzly bear to the elusive mountain lion, California offers plenty of opportunities to experience the natural world up close. In fact, the state is home to over 600 species of birds, more than 200 species of mammals, and countless reptiles, amphibians, and fish. Whether you’re exploring the rugged northern coast, the rugged desert landscapes of the east, or the verdant forests of the Sierra Nevada, there’s always the chance to encounter some of California’s fascinating creatures.
What animal is only found in California?
The California condor, a magnificent and majestic bird with a wingspan of up to ten feet, is only found in California. These endangered birds are a symbol not only of the unique wildlife of California, but also of the importance of conservation efforts to protect our planet’s precious biodiversity.
Wildlife in California is truly a wonder to behold. From the towering redwoods to the vast deserts, the state boasts a diverse range of natural habitats that are home to a multitude of species. Whether you’re exploring the mountains for bighorn sheep or catching a glimpse of a majestic condor soaring through the skies, there’s a never ending source of amazement to be found in California’s wildlife. However, as much as we may enjoy these creatures from afar, it’s important that we also take responsibility for preserving their habitats and protecting their populations.
An animal enthusiast with an interest in zoology, studying the behavior and activities of animals in the wild habitat. I work on research projects related to species conservation and endangered species protection. I also leverage zoology to become an educator, educating others about the importance of protecting our natural environment and the beauty of animals in their natural habitats.