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Habitat: the place where an animal or plant lives.

Palette (artist): a thin surface used to mix colors. A palette is often used by artists when they are painting... more

South Mountain Park Plants and Animals

How would you describe the desert? If you were an artist you might pick brown, beige, and grey as your main colors for your palette. Your list of plant and animals that could be added would likely include cacti, snakes, and lizards. You might also put in a vulture flying in the distance for effect. It is the desert after all and how many plants and animals could really live in such a place? The answer is hundreds and in some cases a few of them are only found in South Mountain Park.

Bird Watcher

To help you with your next trip to this desert habitat we have listed a few of the plants and animals you might see while hiking. Keep in mind that some do not live here year-round.


Bird watching is best in the early morning or in the late afternoon to evening. Be sure to bring your binoculars. If you are new to bird watching, we have both beginner and advanced birding guides that you can download. They have many helpful tips for all levels of birders. Also we have our Bird Finder that you can use to identify the birds you see or to prepare you before you head out for a hike.

Anna's Hummingbird  
Anna's Hummingbird

 Anna's Hummingbird

canyon wren

Canyon wren

Black-tailed gnatcatcher

Black-tailed gnatcatcher

Ganbel's Quail

Gambel's quail

Bendire’s Thrasher  
Black-tailed Gnatcatcher  
Canyon Towhee  
Canyon Wren  
Common Raven  
Curve-billed Thrasher   
Gambel's Quail  
Gila Woodpecker    
Gila Woodpecker

Gila woodpecker

red-tailed hawkRed-tailed hawk


roadrunnerGreater roadrunner

Rufous-crowned sparrow

Rufous-crowned sparrow

Gilded Flicker  
Great Horned Owl  
Greater Roadrunner  
Harris's Hawk  
Red-tailed Hawk  
Rock Wren  
Rufous-crowned Sparrow  
Scott’s Oriole
(In Early Spring)


When the birds take a break from the heat, you can be sure to find some reptiles to observe. Besides a collection of lizards, one of which is only found in South Mountain Park, there are the usual snakes and Gila monsters. If you keep your eyes on the boulders along the trail you should see a few of the lizards. Also be sure not to place your hand or feet anywhere you cannot see. It will help keep you from getting too close to a snake.

Black-tailed rattlesnake
black-tailed rattlesnake

Black-tailed rattlesnake


Chuckwalla – orange-tailed (unique to South Mountain)
Common side-blotched lizards
desert tortoise

Desert tortoise

Gila monster

Gila monster

Desert tortoise
Gila monster
Speckled rattlesnake
Tiger whiptail lizard

patch-nosed snakeWestern patch-nosed snake

Zebra-tailed lizard

Zebra-tailed lizard

Western diamond-backed rattlesnake
Western patch-nosed snake
Zebra-tailed lizard


While you might not see any of the four legged animals in the park, you might want to keep a close lookout for animal tracks and scat (poop). If you do see an animal it is likely one of these. Click to listen in as Ranger Liz Smith give you the scoop on poop:

Or play the mp3 file here.








Merriam's kangaroo ratKangaroo rat          

Gray fox  
Ground squirrel  
Kangaroo rat  
Mule deer  
Pocket mouse  
Ringtail cat  
White-throated woodrat           

Insects, Spiders and Arthropods

Yes, there are insects in the desert. Some of them fly, others walk along the ground. All have six legs. The spiders in the desert, like everywhere else have eight legs. The arthropods have many legs. In the park especially after a rainstorm you might see millipedes that have many legs and can be quite long (up to 10 inches). Many people mistake the millipede for the centipede which are poisonious. If you come across a millipede, you can leave it alone. It will not harm anyone.

After a rainstorm the millipedes come out. These arthropods are not poisonious. So you can leave them alone.
Unlike the millipede the centipede has a flat head, with a pair a front facing antennae, and two wicked looking pinchers called maxillae.

Plant Life

Not to be out done by the animals, many plants also live in the park. Some can be seen from all parts of the trail, others are more common in the desert washes where they can count on a regular supply of water. And all it takes is a few days of rains and South Mountain will show off its wildflowers. If you want to increase your chances of finding these plants, it is best to stick to the north facing hillsides.


Saguaro Cactus

Saguaro Cactus


    Prickly pear  
Creosote bush  
Elephant tree  
Mexican gold poppie  
Orange-flowered globe mallow  
Palo verde trees  
Purple lupine  
Yellow-flowered brittlebush  

Additional images via Wikimedia Commons. Black-tailed gnatcatcher and Bobcat by Dominic Sherony. Canyon wren by Gary L. Clark. Red-tailed hawk by Alan Vernon. Desert tortoise by Lake Mead NRA Public Affairs. Black-tailed rattlesnake by HarmonyonPlanetEarth. Patchnosed snake by Alan Schmierer. Javelina by Wing-Chi Poon. Kangaroo rat by Connor Long.

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Bibliographic details:

  • Article: Desert Plants and Animals
  • Author(s): Dr. Biology, Justin Olson, Elizabeth Smith
  • Publisher: Arizona State University School of Life Sciences Ask A Biologist
  • Site name: ASU - Ask A Biologist
  • Date published: August 30, 2013
  • Date accessed: September 26, 2023
  • Link:

APA Style

Dr. Biology, Justin Olson, Elizabeth Smith. (2013, August 30). Desert Plants and Animals. ASU - Ask A Biologist. Retrieved September 26, 2023 from

American Psychological Association. For more info, see

Chicago Manual of Style

Dr. Biology, Justin Olson, Elizabeth Smith. "Desert Plants and Animals". ASU - Ask A Biologist. 30 August, 2013.

MLA 2017 Style

Dr. Biology, Justin Olson, Elizabeth Smith. "Desert Plants and Animals". ASU - Ask A Biologist. 30 Aug 2013. ASU - Ask A Biologist, Web. 26 Sep 2023.

Modern Language Association, 7th Ed. For more info, see

With Bird Finder you can locate and learn about birds in the southwest. The collection has almost 300 birds. There are images, range maps, and their songs and calls. You can also select and compare different birds.

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