Wildlife In The City In The Desert

Desert cottontail rabbits socializing | Creative Commons photo by Lon Enriqueta

By now it's no secret that wild things live in California's cities. You need but look at the LA River and Santa Monica Mountains reporting here at KCET to see that urban Southern California is replete with wild animals of various kinds. Some of those wild things are reasonably popular, some less-so, but all of them eke out a living in the urban spaces we haven't yet paved.

But though it may be hard to remember in an age of identical corner coffee shops in Westwood, Wisconsin, and Washington, DC, not all cities are the same. We have certainly instituted a monotonous uniformity in the human aspects of our urban landscapes. For the most part, however, aside from a handful of species like rats and pigeons and starlings, our non-human neighbors will reflect the landscape that was there before we built our cities. The more intact that prior landscape remains, the more profound the difference in the cities' wild citizens there will be.

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I was reminded of this a few weeks ago as my girlfriend and I walked through a parking lot near our house in downtown Palm Springs. A largish bird was rummaging through a trash can. This was not a particularly unusual sight, except that this bird turned out to be a greater roadrunner, Geococcyx californianus, foraging in the trash for live prey. It caught something -- a side-blotched lizard, by the looks of it -- and sped off down an alley past a dumpster and into the vacant lot behind the shopping center.

Roadrunners were once fairly common throughout California. My ex-wife saw them in her South Pasadena neighborhood as late as the mid-1970s. But the birds require a network of uninterrupted desert or coastal scrub habitat, and most of the suitable habitat in the LA basin was built up long ago. Los Angeles roadrunners are a rarity now, but in desert cities -- especially in the Coachella Valley, with the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountains right here -- they pop up with some regularity.

There are other desert city creatures that are sometimes found in Los Angeles -- a handy reminder of the semi-arid, half-desert savanna Los Angeles was for most of the last 12,000 years. There's the desert cottontail rabbit, for instance, also called the Audubon's cottontail. A frequent denizen of brushy vacant lots and irrigated golf courses, and possibly the most common mammal in the desert aside from rodents, the desert cottontail is, despite its monicker, abundant in Los Angeles. It's one of seven mammals listed as denizens of the Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Area. Costa's hummingbird, to whose deserty haunts birders travel great distances, are also often seen in LA and environs. Barn owls, especially common in desert neighborhoods where planted fan palms offer the nesting sites they seem to love best, are regular visitors to Echo Park palm trees as well, and to the rest of California besides.

But some of my neighbors in Palm Springs never make it to LA, let alone San Francisco or Eureka. Take the Gambel's quail, Callipepla gambelii. Very common in desert cities in places where the birds have ready access to undeveloped open space, Gambel's quail don't get west of the deserts. Along the coast, their ecological niche -- gregarious, seed- and insect-eating ground birds - is occupied by their close relative the California quail, at least in areas where urban cats haven't ravaged their populations. How closely related are the two species? It's thought the species split from their common ancestor only one or two million years ago: practically yesterday. Even so, the Gambel's quail can be distinguished from its coastal cousin -- aside from one of them living in the desert and the other not doing so, the male Gambel's has a black patch on its lower abdomen where the male California quail doesn't, and the Gambel's rally call -- a raucous three notes often described as sounding like "chi-CAH-go!" -- seems to me generally about half an octave higher than the California quail's.

Male and female Gambel's quail | Creative Commons photo by Valerie Everett

That may seem a subtle set of differences. I can't say I disagree. There are other desert city animals with confusingly close cousins on the coast, such as lizards in the genus Sceloporus, which includes the southern sagebrush lizard of the low desert mountains, and the very similar-looking Great Basin fence lizard, found on retaining walls and mailboxes throughout the greater Los Angeles metropolitan region, as well as -- to add even further to the confusion -- some places in the northern Mojave and Great Basin deserts.

But some desert city lizards don't have confusing coastal cousins. If you see a northern desert iguana in a sandy spot, for instance; or a chuckwalla on a rock wall; or a zebra-tailed lizard or southern desert horned lizard scampering across an urban trail in front of you, you are most definitely in the desert and not in Topanga Canyon.

Of course it's the local wild plants that really make it a desert. I've spent the last few decades of my life, and uncounted hundreds of dollars, trying to coax desert plants to grow in gardens in Northern California or in my window in West Hollywood. Here they're weeds. One day this week, as the air cooled before dusk, I walked out the door and up the nearest main road to the foot of Mount San Jacinto. I passed some vacant land, part of the Agua Caliente Cahuilla Reservation, and desert willows were blooming their fool heads off, attracting crowds of Costa's hummingbirds.

Desert willow blossom | Chris Clarke photo

Blue palo verde grew thick among the desert willow as well, its braches heavy with brown leguminous seed pods -- the result of an orgy of bloom and pollination in June. Audubon's cottontails fairly swarmed beneath the palo verdes, gorging on fallen pods, crossing the road at times to drink from lawn sprinklers. Farther from the road creosote bush -- the signature plant of both the low and high deserts in California -- filled the air with its heady resinous scent. A California kingsnake, a variable species whos emany forms live in all but the coldest and wettest slivers of the state, tolerated my presence for a few minutes, then headed for the base of a creosote.

I reached the base of the mountain and started up the North Lykken Trail, scattering a small band of Gambel's quail. A lone female watched me for a while from atop a street sign, then joined her family. Side-blotched lizards scattered from either side of the trail as I hiked upward, diving under some very ratty looking brittle bush for cover as I passed. When I got to the top of the small ridge I met the second chuckwalla I've seen since we moved to Palm Springs, placid and unfazed by my sudden appearance, sitting atop a rock looking down at the Coachella Valley as the coyotes started to sing at the mouth of Tahquitz Canyon.

It was very much a hike in a Southern California city, and it was very much a hike in the desert, and I don't know if I could tease out the two if I tried.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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