Creature Comforts


by Alex Zaragoza

Wild parrots, leopard sharks and mountain lions-beyond the confines of Sea World and one of the world’s most celebrated zoos, these are just a few of the animals that comprise San Diego’s dazzling array of wildlife. And whether they fly, run, slither or swim, all of our hometown creatures help make life here a little more wild.

Costa’s hummingbird, Calypte costae
Allen’s hummingbird, Selasphorus sasin
Anna’s hummingbird, Calypte anna

Most hummingbirds beat their wings about 50 times per second, or about 3,000 times per minute. Unlike other birds, they produce lift by moving their wings in a figure-8 motion, which enables them to fly in any direction or simply hover-a skill perfect for gathering nectar from flowers or sugar-water from residential feeders.

Costa’s hummingbirds are found throughout the
county, particularly in the Anza-Borrego desert. They prefer mountainous areas with plenty of flowers, but usually lay their eggs along coastal slopes.

When Philip Unitt was putting together his San Diego Bird Atlas a few years ago, he found that the Allen’s hummingbird was not yet prevalent in San Diego, breeding instead mostly in Orange County. “Since then, the Allen’s has spread south along the coast,” he says.

Red-tailed hawk, Buteo jamaicensis

Red-tailed hawks, also called “chicken hawks,” are found throughout San Diego, often perched above open grasslands and sitting atop lampposts and highway signs, from which they look for prey. They’re heard anytime the sound of an eagle is used in television or movies, because their squawks are considered more regal-sounding than those of actual American eagles. Thanks to their ability to hunt, they are often captured and trained for falconry.

Rock pigeon (aka Rock dove), Columba livia

Pigeons are often referred to as rats with wings, having earned the bad rap by harboring parasites. But before you run off to slather your neighborhood pigeons with Purell, consider that they don’t pose major threats to human health-which is good news, because they’re everywhere.

Comedian Charlie Day (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) once asked, “Where are the baby pigeons?”

Sarah Whorley from San Diego’s Project Wildlife says it’s a case of mistaken identity.

“We get calls for baby hawks, but they end up actually being pigeons,” she says. “They’re yellow, fuzzy things; they don’t look anything like pigeons. You wouldn’t think they would turn out to be gray.”

American white pelican, Pelicanus erythrorhynchus

These coastal giants grow up to 67 inches tall and have the second largest wingspan of any North American bird. (Top honors go to the California condor.) Found along all of the county’s beaches, usually in flocks, American white pelicans plummet headfirst into the ocean to gulp fish. They hang out in Southern California year-round, but larger numbers make San Diego home during winter months.

Western gull, Larus occidentalis

Trish Jackman and Sarah Whorley from San Diego’s Project Wildlife (, an organization that rescues sick and injured animals, take in six different species of gulls, most frequently the Western gull.

These head-pooping, sandwich stealers sure are opportunistic feeders, scavenging sustenance along the coast and inland to East County, often while exhibiting what’s known as “mobbing behavior.”

As nestlings, Western gulls are fluffy, with black spots. They turn brown and grey as juveniles, and don’t get their signature white and grey plumage until they reach adulthood, which takes about four years.

Red-crowned Amazons
Amazona viridigenalis

These feral parrots came to San Diego from Mexico under somewhat mysterious circumstances. Some say they escaped from an Ocean Beach bird collector’s home when it burned down in the early 1960s. Others believe they were released somewhere near the border when someone was trying to smuggle them into the country.

Whatever their origin, these loud-mouths have proliferated and are often spotted in Pacific Beach, Ocean Beach, Linda Vista, Coronado and along the harbor.

“It’s not uncommon to see them lined up on a pole, squawking,” says Cathy Montagne, adoption coordinator at the Parrot Rehabilitation Society in Lakeside. “You feel like you’re in the middle of the jungle or something.”

Amazons flock in groups of up to 50 year-round. They’re most active (and noisy) in springtime, when they’re nesting and their eggs are hatching.

Barn owl,

Tyto alba
California great horned owl, Bubo virginianus pacificus

Various owls are found in San Diego, the most common of which is the barn owl. According to the San Diego County Bird Atlas, a project by Philip Unitt of the San Diego Natural History Museum, these birds are found throughout the county, often in barns (of course) and other manmade structures.

Grey squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis
California ground squirrel, Spermophilus beecheyi

With their fluffy little tails and funny way of eating nuts, squirrels are often the object of our adoration. Lucky for us, we can spot them pretty much everywhere: running along telephone wires in urban sections of town, burrowing in the hills by La Jolla shores and hanging out in parks all over the county.

Two of the squirrels we coo at locally are the Grey squirrel and the California ground squirrel, the latter of which is smaller and brownish in color. While Greys are sometimes eaten by humans, the California ground’s primary predators are rattlesnakes. Studies conducted at U.C. Davis show that certain squirrels have adapted to the threat of such predation by chewing on skins rattlers have shed, and then licking themselves and their pups to disguise their scent.

Mountain Lions
California mountain (aka cougar, puma, panther and catamount), Felis concolor californica

Urban sprawl has put housing developments and Wal-Mart stores in canyonlands that San Diego mountain lions (up to 6,000 of which live in the region) used to call home.

Bobbi Brink, founder and director of Alpine’s big cat and exotic animal rescue sanctuary, Lions, Tigers & Bears, says the elimination of their natural habitat has forced mountain lions to search for food (i.e., squirrels and house pets) in back yards and elementary school playgrounds from Alpine to North Park.

“Between 80 and 100 mountain lions are put down every year for encroaching on land,” Brink says. “They’re not an endangered species, but it’s important that we not seek them out.”

Didelphis marsupialis

Opossums have a tendency to show up in unexpected places, scaring the bejeezus out of people with their beady little eyes and rat-like snouts. But don’t be too hard on them. They’re the only marsupials living in North America, which means they’re the ugly cousins to insanely adorable koalas. It’s not easy being the less cute member of a family of pretty creatures. Just ask Khloe Kardashian.

Kevin Lucier, a certified wildlife specialist with the San Diego branch of Critter Control, gets the call when people want opossums removed from kitchen cabinets, drain pipes and desk drawers. After a night of partying, one of Lucier’s customers was in for the surprise of her life. “When she came home, there was an opossum in her toilet,” he says. “It came up through the sewer system. She tried to flush him down, but he wouldn’t go.”

(aka American jackals), Canis latrans

Much like that of mountain lions, local coyote habitat has been decimated by urban development, which has forced these feral canines to encroach on residential areas in Chula Vista, La Mesa, North Park and Encinitas, among many others.

Given the abatement of their natural hunting grounds, coyotes sometimes resort to attacking family pets and even small children. Bobbi Brink of the Lions, Tigers & Bears sanctuary in Alpine says the best ways to avoid such attacks is to keep pets inside the home or locked up in crates outside, and to refrain from leaving food out. If you do find yourself face-to-face with a coyote, she recommends making noise and trying to scare the animal away versus running or hiding. After all, they can reach speeds of up to 43 miles an hour, even when they aren’t chasing roadrunners.

Striped skunk, Mephitis mephitis

According to Kevin Lucier, an animal trapper with Critter Control, instead of stocking up on cans of tomato juice, skunk-spray victims should head to the feminine hygiene aisle instead. “I’ve seen pet groomers use women’s douches that have white vinegar in them on dogs,” he says. “It’s probably the best thing to use.”

If the thought of douching your entire body gives you a not-so-fresh feeling, avoid La Jolla and Ocean Beach, since those are the areas of San Diego where skunks hang out most. And forget about leaving Fancy Feast on your porch for neighborhood cats-Lucier says this will attract the little stinkers to your house.

San Diego alligator lizard, Elgaria multicarinata webbii

California legless lizard, Anniella pulchra
Great Basin fence lizard, Sceloporus occidentalis longipes

Many lizards can be found in San Diego county, though none of them sell auto insurance.

The Alligator lizard lurks around garages, backyards and small spaces within people’s houses. Like spring break co-eds, these reptiles love soaking in the sun. “They can often be observed sunning themselves on fences and stucco walls in the early morning and evening hours,” says Susan Nowicke, president of the San Diego Herpetological Society.

California legless lizards take a cue from The Hunger Games’ Peeta Mellark by covering up with dirt to stay protected, making them very hard to find. “They’re the secret inhabitants of our San Diego gardens, where conditions of moist soil and ample ground-cover afford them protection,” Nowicke says.

The Great Basin fence lizard, another of San Diego’s most common creepy crawlers, is often referred to as a “blue belly lizard,” due to bright blue scales found on males’ stomachs. Like dudes pumping at the gym, blue bellies communicate through a series of push-ups and head bobs.

Western rattlesnake, Crotalus viridis
Southwestern speckled rattlesnake,
Crotalus mitchelli pyrrhus
Red diamond rattlesnake, Crotalus ruber

Three kinds of rattlesnakes call San Diego home: Western rattlesnakes, Southwestern speckled rattlesnakes and red diamond rattlesnakes. Unless you’re an expert, it’s difficult to know which are poisonous by looks alone. Ergo, if you encounter one, leave it alone-and hopefully you will walk away with your life.

Sea Lions
California sea lion, Zalophus californianus

These adorable guys laze about the cove in La Jolla and bark at passing boats from buoys on the bay, but don’t let their cute faces fool you. California sea lions are smart, capable creatures. Sure, they bounce balls on their noses and give high-fives at the Zoo and SeaWorld, but those aren’t their only tricks.

The U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program in San Diego trains sea lions to assist with tasks for national security, including ship and harbor protection, mine detection and clearance, and equipment recovery. These guys are American heroes. Give them a salute-they might salute back.

California two-spot octopus,
Octopus bimaculoides

The octopus is best known for its tentacles and for confusing people as to what the plural of “octopus” is. (Turns out, it’s “octopuses.”) Thriving in San Diego waters, the California two-spot octopus grows to about seven inches long and frequents local tide pools, especially in La Jolla and Point Loma during summer low tides.

These octopuses can be tough to spot because they’re not only nocturnal but also masters of disguise, changing their coloring and even their texture and size to blend with their surroundings. When camouflage isn’t enough, they shoot black ink to distract predators or inject a toxin through a bite to immobilize them.

Female two-spots have an interesting take on mating. Ben Vallejos of the Chula Vista Nature Center explains that they hold onto a “sperm packet” from a male during the mating process, saving the sperm until they’re ready to make babies. Because they rarely leave their eggs after fertilizing them, females often go so long without eating that they die of starvation shortly after the eggs hatch.
Sea Horses
Pacific seahorse, Hippocampus ingens

Sea horses prefer the warm waters of South America and Mexico, but some venture as far north as San Diego. The ones that do are among the largest species of their kind in the world, growing up to 14 inches tall.

Like party people at a nightclub, seahorses rely on dancing during the mating process. Fernando Nostratpour, aquarist at La Jolla’s Birch Aquarium, says male seahorses “do this dance where they twirl around” when encountering a potential mate. (In this case, no Jaegermeister shots are involved.) After the dance of seduction, the female deposits her eggs into a pouch on the male’s body to complete the fertilization process.

Unlike most other species, the male then carries the eggs for two weeks, releasing them after they hatch. The female is basically a deadbeat mom.

“She may hang out for a while after depositing her eggs, but usually she deposits them, and that’s it. The male takes all of the parenting care,” Nostratpour says. However, it’s not unusual for a female to return to the same male seahorse to reproduce again in the future.

Hypsypops rubicundus

These bright orange fishies are not only the official state marine fish of California, but also the gang members of the ocean. According to sea-life expert Ben Vallejos of the Chula Vista Nature Center, garibaldi are very territorial-if you swim up on their turf, they will get up in your grill. And maybe even dance a little.

“Once they establish their territory, they don’t move far from it,” Vallejos says. “If a scuba diver comes towards them, they’ll defend their territory by swimming aggressively towards them. They’ll even come up to your mask to shoo you away.”

Visible (even
from shore) year-round, garibaldi are most prevalent in summer. They tend to prefer rocky areas and kelp reefs along the coast, especially in La Jolla Cove.


Bottlenose dolphin, Tursiops truncates
Short-beaked common dolphin, Dephinus delphis
Long-beaked common dolphin, Delphinus capensis

A San Diego ocean lifeguard for more than 30 years, Ed Vodrazka has spotted countless dolphins swimming in local waters. He has also seen people paddle for their lives when confusing the friendly mammals for man-eating sharks. One day, he played a prank on an unsuspecting family.

“I was in the tower one late afternoon, when a new Range Rover pulls up,” he says. “A family gets out, dressed impeccably, and I hear British accents. I see dolphins by the next tower over, so I yell out to them that we have sonar devices that will attract dolphins to come and play in front of us. It’s totally hogwash, but I knew they’d be swimming over in five minutes. So, I act like I’m turning a knob. Sure enough, the dolphins are there in six minutes. The kids were so excited. Turns out the guy was the executive producer of American Idol. I spoofed one of the most powerful men in Hollywood.”

Leopard Sharks
Triakis semifasciata

While a leopard/shark hybrid might sound like a deadly combo, the real-life leopard shark poses no threat to humans. In fact, they are wary of people and will usually scatter when swimmers or surfers enter the waters at the south end of La Jolla Shores, where they can be found in large numbers.

Fernando Nostratpour, aquarist at La Jolla’s Birch Aquarium, says female leopard sharks aggregate by the Marine Room restaurant at the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club in summertime, although he’s not certain why that section of the coastline is so popular with the fish.

“There’s some research going on at Scripps Institute of Oceanography,” he says. “No one is sure about the answer yet, because there’s food everywhere, and it’s mostly females, so they’re not there to mate. They’re trying to figure out what’s special about that spot. It’s definitely a highlight and something unique to San Diego.”

Sea Urchins
Purple sea urchin, Strongylocentrotus purpuratus

The porcupines of the ocean are identifiable by the long, sharp spines that grow out of their shells. Locally, purple sea urchins inhabit rocky reef areas and tide pools along most beaches, particularly in La Jolla. During the day, they hang out under
the rocks, making them more difficult to spot.