Wildlife Viewing

Watch the wildlife at Oracle State Park

The park has abundant wildlife resources, interesting geologic formations and diverse plant communities. Ranging from 4,600’ to 3,700’ in elevation, the landscape is dominated by rolling hills and panoramic vistas as it transitions from oak-woodland to desert grassland.

The most commonly sighted mammals include white-tailed deer, coyote, bobcat, javelina, gray fox, cottontail rabbits, all four Arizona skunks (white-striped, spotted, hooded and hognose), many other small mammals, and an occasional mountain lion.

Common bird sightings include scrub jay, Gambel’s quail, raven, cardinal, great horned owl, cooper’s hawk, redtailed hawk, harris’s hawk, turkey vulture, gila woodpecker, say’s phoebe, curve-billed thrasher, hooded oriole, canyon towhee, phainopepla and many other seasonal migrants, including warblers, hummingbirds and sparrows.

Reptiles include a variety of snakes and lizards featuring the western diamondback rattlesnake (pictured) and clark’s and desert spiny lizards, western fence lizard, giant spotted lizard and several others. The Gila monster and desert tortoise can also be seen.

The Big Stink

By Marlo Buchmann, Southern Region Interpretive Education Coordinator

Phew! What’s that smell? Just skunks. Mention the word “skunk” and right away we think of their smelly, defensive spray. But what else do we know about skunks?

Until recently skunks were members of the weasel family (Mustelidae) that also included weasels, ferrets, badgers and river otters. However, DNA studies show them to belong in their own family, Mephitidae. Skunks are found only in the New World. Arizona has four species of skunks. They are the striped, hooded, hog-nosed and spotted. The spotted is the smallest Arizona skunk species. Many other weasel family members also exude a foul-smelling musk, used mostly for marking territory.

hog-nosed skunk
Arizona has four species of skunks: striped, hooded, hog-nosed and spotted. Pictured here is a hog-nosed skunk.

Skunks are mild-tempered and avoid confrontations unless provoked. When threatened, they usually turn to face the assailant, arch their backs, raise their tails, hiss and stamp their feet. If the warning is ignored, they turn their back to the intruder and discharge their musk. They can accurately hit a moving target at 15 feet, but the smell can carry for up to 20 miles! Now that’s a powerful stink! 

The musk glands produce about a tablespoon of thick, yellowish, oily liquid, enough for multiple shots if needed. This mild poison can temporarily blind and incapacitate its victims, but causes no permanent damage. Skunks are about the size of a domestic cat, but have shorter legs that give them a waddling gait. Their musk glands are located at the base of their long, bushy tail. Their striking black-and-white fur serves as warning coloration against predators. Males are usually larger than the females.

Skunks are mostly carnivores, primarily eating small rodents, insects and grubs. Skunks will also eat bird eggs, reptiles, amphibians and mollusks. They are one of the only mammals that will eat honeybees. They supplement their carnivorous diet with grains and fruit. 

Skunks are mostly nocturnal, but will forage during the day, especially when weather is cooler. Though they don’t hibernate like some animals, they sleep more in the winter by slightly slowing down their body processes. This requires greater amounts of energy than hibernation, so they often become active on warm days, foraging for goodies. In the wild they will den in an abandoned burrow or rock crevices; in civilization they will sometimes den under buildings.

The babies, or kits, are born blind, hairless and toothless in April or May. They grow rapidly and are independent in 10 weeks. Believe it on not, there are numerous predators that will eat skunks! Great horned owls, bobcats, mountain lions, coyotes and foxes will attack and eat skunks. Apparently the predators are pretty efficient (and have strong stomachs!), because skunks only live an average of 3 years in the wild. Skunks are notorious as carriers of rabies, second only behind raccoons.

If you encounter a skunk, move slowly and quietly out of its way. Remember, skunks usually only spray when confronted. So hopefully you now know more about skunks and their big stink.

P.S. And if you ever do get skunked, here's a a helpful deodorizer recipe:

Skunk Deodorizer Recipe

In a bucket mix:

  • 1 quart of FRESH 3 percent hydrogen peroxide (available at drugstore or grocery store in the health care aisle)
  • ¼ cup baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon liquid dish soap (Dawn works best)

The mixture will bubble. Thoroughly wet the victim in the mixture, taking care to keep it out of the eyes. While it is bubbling, sponge on the mixture and wash in as if it were shampoo. Rinse and repeat. The solution must be mixed fresh each time it is needed. Discard unused portions. DO NOT place the solution in a closed container, as the bubbling would cause it to explode. It may affect the color of some fabrics and dogs!

Owls Exemplify Diversity of Park

By Jerry D. Orr, Park Ranger

The 4,000 acres of the Oracle State Park lie near the nexus of four great North American bioregions: the Rocky Mountain to the north, the Sierra Madrean to the south, the Sonoran Desert to the west and the Chihuahuan Desert to the east, and includes a variety of different habitats. This diversity in bioregional influences and habitat types has resulted in a rich heritage of biological diversity. In this article I would like to take a look at one group of animals that exemplify this diversity: owls. 

In Oracle State Park, depending on time of year and location within the park, there is the potential for encountering at least eleven species of owls. Below, is a brief description of each species in what I believe is the order for possibility of encounter within the park:

Great Horned Owl

Length: 18–25 inches
Voice: “Hoo!, huhu- hu, Hoo! Hoo!” 
Year-round resident of park. The “cat owl.” This is our big guy/gal, and the owl most likely to be encountered in the park. It is found in all the park’s habitat types, and feeds on everything from mice to skunks. This owl is also the primary predator of all other owls found in the park. The great horned owl is often seen at dawn and dusk perched atop boulders and oak snags. 

Western Screech Owl 

Length: 7–10 inches 
Voice: a series of hollow whistles on one pitch, running into a tremolo (rhythm of a small ball bouncing to a standstill) 
Year-round resident of park A small owl common in the park. It is often heard, but seldom seen. It occurs in all habitat types in the park, but prefers oak woodland for the abundance of cavities found there for nesting and roosting. This owl preys on everything from large insects to small rabbits. It even preys on smaller owls! It is frequently heard in the park on moonless nights during the spring, as long as there are no great horned owls calling in the area.

Barn Owl 

Length: 14–20 inches 
Voice: a shrill rasping hiss “shiiish” 
Potential year-round resident of park The “ghost owl.” A medium sized owl I have yet to encounter in the park, but I have found them, on several occasions, within a couple of miles of the park. This owl is often found roosting in abandoned buildings, old wells and mine shafts. The barn owl is a mousing specialist, but will take other small prey as well.

Whiskered Screech Owl 

Length: 6½–8 inches 
Voice: “Boobooboo boo, Boobooboo boo” 
Potential year-round resident of park. Oracle State Park lies at the northern limit of this owl’s range, and though I have not encountered this owl in the park, I have heard it calling within a mile of the park in oak woodland habitat identical to that found in the park. This small owl is very similar in appearance to the western screech-owl, and is best identified by its distinct call. It prefers somewhat smaller prey than the western screech-owl. The best chance for hearing this owl in the park would be on a moonless night during the spring.

Northern Pygmy-Owl 

Length: 7–7½ inches 
Voice: a single mellow “hoo” repeated every two or three seconds 
Potential year-round resident of park. A small songbird hunter, this species is the most diurnal of the owls. It is often found out and about during the day. I have not seen this owl in the park, but the park is inside this owl’s range and possesses suitable oak woodland habitat. In addition to preying on songbirds, this owl also feeds on large insects and small mammals.

Elf Owl 

Length: 5–6 inches 
Voice: a rapid, high-pitched “chewk, chewk, chewk, chewk” 
Potential summer resident of park. The smallest owl in the western hemisphere. This is another species I have yet to see or hear in the park, but I know of a pair that nest every year about a mile from the park in oak woodland habitat. This tiny owl feeds almost exclusively on large insects and small reptiles, but will occasionally take mousesized mammals. The best chance for hearing this owl in the park would be during the summer just after dusk.

Long-Eared Owl

Length: 13–16 inches 
Voice: one or two long “hooo’s”, usually silent
Winter resident of park. A medium sized owl that resembles a smaller version of the Great Horned Owl. I know of one pair of these owls that spends the winter in the park. This owl preys on small mammals and roosting birds. It is not likely that it would be heard calling during the winter.

Northern Saw-Whet Owl

Length: 7–8½ inches 
Voice: a mellow whistled note repeated in endless succession: “too, too, too, too, too”, etc... 
Potential winter resident of park I was recently shown a beautiful picture of this small, round-headed owl that was taken last winter, in oak woodland habitat, three miles from the park, so I have included it here as a possible winter resident of the park. This owl could possibly be found roosting in thick oak cover, and probably would not be heard calling during the winter. This owl is a hunter of small mammals and roosting songbirds.

Short-Eared Owl 

Length: 13–17 inches 
Voice: An emphatic, sneazy bark: “kee-yow!, wow!” 
Potential winter resident of park I am including this medium-sized owl as a potential winter resident based solely on the presence of another bird. The Northern Harrier is the daytime counterpart of the short-eared owl. They share the same habitat requirements and eat the same prey. They even have the same hunting technique. Since I see northern harriers in the park every winter, I do not believe it is unreasonable to assume that there may be short-eared owls here as well. The best chance for seeing this owl would be at dusk and dawn flying low over our grasslands. This owl preys on small mammals and grassland songbirds.

Flammulated Owl

Length: 6–7 inches 
Voice: a mellow “hoot “ low in pitch repeated steadily at intervals of two to three seconds. 
Potential spring and fall transient in the park Oracle State Park lies along this small owls migratory route and it might be found in the park during migration. I believe that the best time to possibly hear this owl would be during spring migration, on a moonless night, when excited owls might call from time to time as they head north. This owl feeds almost exclusively on large insects.

Mexican Spotted Owl 

Length: 16½–19 inches 
Voice: highpitched “hoots” like the barking of a small dog, usually in groups of four. 
Potential winter visitor of park Oracle State Park is situated in the northern foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Should the Catalinas acquire and retain a deep snow pack during the winter, the Mexican spotted owls residing there might be forced to move to lower elevations, potentially bringing them within the park. They would probably be found roosting in the boulder piles, especially if the boulder pile were surrounded by large oaks. This owl preys on small mammals and the occasional roosting songbird.