Desert Companion

Field notes: The animals next door

Want to go where the wild things are? You don’t have to venture far. Meet the critters who make a home near you. (Note: Some are terrifying.)


Burrowing Owl
Illustration by Craig Schaffer


Nests are for the birds. Why build a nest when there are so many spacious, comfortable holes in the ground to make use of? That’s what the elfin, vaguely angry-looking burrowing owl does. In the Las Vegas Valley, you can find them in hilly desert areas, often in undeveloped lots on the suburban outskirts, where they’ll either use holes previously dug out by other animals or dig their own. Adult owls hang out around the burrow during the day, taking trips to hunt for small rodents, reptiles and insects to feed their equally vaguely angry-looking owl family.

Holes, solitude, staring hatefully at you, insects, lizards, small rodents

Rapacious developers


A single burrowing owl’s nest can be part of a colony spanning hundreds of yards. And best of all, there’s no HOA!
Illustration by Craig Schaffer

A single burrowing owl’s nest can be part of a colony spanning hundreds of yards. And best of all, there’s no HOA!


Illustration by Craig Schaffer


Its Frankensteinian appearance aside — check out that spiked thoracic collar straight outta Hot Topic! — the palo verde beetle is harmless. (Just don’t wave a finger in front of those mandibles.) After spending most of its three-year life span underground as a fat yellow-white grub feasting on the roots of trees, the palo verde beetle only lives above ground for a month, which it spends in true bucket-list fashion, battling rival suitors and having as much frantic, violent beetle sex as possible. And yes, it can fly, which means yes, it can fly into your mouth.


The root-gnawing grub of the palo verde beetle is up to five inches long and ugh just yuck.


True story: “I’ve seen them while out delivering the mail, and my reaction always follows the same pattern: First, terror. Second, rationalization. Clearly this is a toy, cooked up by some overimaginative sadist intent on scaring children (and mailmen). Finally, unavoidable acceptance and a return to terror when the diabolical creature actually flies! I give them a wide berth.”

— Alan Gegax, mail carrier and avid hiker


Illustration by Craig Schaffer


A subspecies of the coachwhip — so named for its tail scales that look like braided leather — the red racer is a nonvenomous snake that’s fairly common in Southern Nevada, Southern California and eastern Arizona. But nonvenomous doesn’t mean wimpy. These swift snakes are canny, aggressive and alert hunters that kill mice, birds and other reptiles by pinning them and crushing them with their powerful jaws. Adults can get up to six terror-inducing feet long.


Secret attack

As part of its hunting strategy,
the red racer will poke its head over
a rock and bob it, fooling its prey into thinking it’s a harmless lizard. psyyyych!


Red Racer
Illustration by Craig Schaffer

Oh, and also ...

The myth of the hoop snake is thought to be inspired by the coachwhip. See, even reptiles have a fake news problem.


Illustration by Craig Schaffer


Beavers aren’t native to Southern Nevada — but hey, are you? Actually, that’s the point: As Las Vegas grew — and, specifically, the Las Vegas Wash evolved from a storm channel to an urban river — beavers followed, making a home in the wash. Today there are between 20 and 40 beavers living in the Clark County Wetlands Park. And yes, they’re busy, obsessively building dams out of mud, reeds and branches every night to the point where park employees have to tear them down several times a week to keep the water flowing. (If you notice metal mesh around cottonwoods and willows at the park, that’s beaver-proofing.)


Beever's Teeth
Illustration by Craig Schaffer

A beaver’s teeth never stop growing, and only get sharper with use. Let’s hope they don’t develop a taste for human flesh!

Fun fact: Most beavers build lodges out of sticks, but the presumably less ambitious ones at the wetlands park prefer instead to live in holes on the banks.


Mountain Lion
Illustration by Craig Schaffer


Cougars, aka mountain lions, are so rarely seen in Southern Nevada, many people think they’re a myth. But the elusive nocturnal hunters that could grow as large as eight feet long do make a home in the Spring Mountains, subsisting mainly on deer. While sightings are rare, it pays to be prepared if you do encounter one: Don’t run. Instead, try to make yourself appear as large as possible and back away slowly. You can scream all you want later.


Illustration by Craig Schaffer

The cougar’s claws have evolved so that the harder prey struggles, the tighter they grip. Happy hiking!

True story: “I was camping up on Mt. Charleston in the Lovell Canyon area near a spring, and a big cat screamed from the nearby shadows. In the fading light of early evening, I jumped into the back of my pickup, grabbed my rifle for self-defense, hunkered down and shuddered for the rest of the night. I never saw the creature — and I never camped there again.”

— Jim Boone,



White Velvet Ant
Illustration by Craig Schaffer


It’s actually the white thistledown velvet ant if you want to get fancy — and actually a wasp if you want to get technical. Lacking wings to escape predators, the still-nimble female white velvet ant mimics Phyllis Diller a fluffy creosote seed on the desert floor. She might be done up like a burlesque dancer, but be warned — like any good wasp, the white velvet ant packs a nasty sting.

True story: “We thought the piece of white fluff skittering across the dust at Corn Creek was a seed ball blown by the wind. But it was walking: fast, confident and determined — an impossible being. Turns out the white velvet ant isn’t even an ant, but a wingless wasp, which explains its swagger.”

— Patrick Gaffey, amateur nature photographer


Male Velvet Ant
Illustration by Craig Schaffer

The male thistledown velvet ant has wings, but he isn’t as cool-looking.

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