A green hummingbird hovers among the branches of a sage bush, dipping its long beak into the purple blossoms as the sun gleams on its metallic-pink neck feathers. A tiny brown lizard darts from behind a rock. Mourning doves coo from a bottlebrush shrub but are soon drowned out by squirrels chattering angrily at each other.
As the sky darkens, a family of raccoons digs in the turf at the base of a tree, looking for worms and grubs. And as the moon rises, a coyote howls in the distance.
This isn’t happening in some idyllic country retreat, but in a tiny back yard a block from a major freeway. And if you think it’s unusual for such a small space to have such varied wildlife, think again.
California is the most biodiverse state in the country and one of the most biodiverse on the planet. The Bay Area offers so many species of flora and fauna — birds, fish, mammals, amphibians and invertebrates — UNESCO designated the region the Golden Gate Biosphere Reserve in 1988.
Even Los Angeles County, with all its concrete, is home to more than 500 species of birds, 19 species of snakes and dozens of species of frogs, lizards and turtles. And that’s not even counting the mammals, says Lila Higgins, a senior manager at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and co-author of 2019’s “Wild L.A.: Explore the Amazing Nature in and Around Los Angeles.”
“We’ve got very ‘urban’ habitats, parks, back yards, empty lots, streetscapes,” Higgins says. “(But) like an ‘urban forest,’ all of those things create zones for creatures to live in.”
In other words, you don’t have to head for the wilderness to spot wildlife. They’re in your back yard. Higgins and colleagues started the annual City Nature Challenge in 2016 as an L.A.-Bay Area effort to encourage citizen naturalists to photograph the wildlife they spot in their yards, parks and hiking trails. Since then, the effort has gone global. The 2023 challenge, held May 1-7, involved 485 cities in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia and the Americas and recorded nearly 1.9 million sightings of more than 57,000 species by more than 66,000 citizen naturalists.
If you missed this year’s challenge, you can still do some nature spotting and recording of your own, says Mark Girardeau, who posts his sightings of bobcats, pumas, coyotes, foxes and even orcas at orangecountyoutdoors.com.
About those coyotes, though. If you belong to your neighborhood Facebook group or spend time on NextDoor, you may think these canids have taken over your neighborhood. There are between 250,000 and 750,000 coyotes in the state, and urban ones have been expanding their territories into California suburbs. But Girardeau says they’re not as widespread as social media might have us think.
“We now hear about every coyote sighting, whereas just 10 or 20 years ago, we didn’t,” he says. “It seems like people are seeing them more, when in reality, we are just more connected to everyone else’s lives and complaints than ever before.”
(That said, if you do encounter one, keep your distance. If you feel threatened, experts suggest you make yourself large and loud, wave your arms and shout at the animal to go away. Do not run. Keep dogs on a leash, so they don’t run either, and if you’re walking a small dog, pick him up.)
You don’t want to make your back yard coyote-friendly, of course, so don’t leave pet food out on your porch or patio. But how do you make whatever green space you have as wildlife-friendly as possible for other creatures?
Plant as many native, drought-resistant species as possible. Add a water feature. A small pond, bird bath or fountain is a great way to attract birds. Avoid pesticides. Leave mulch on soil and don’t clear away brush piles. They provide cover for insects and smaller animals, such as lizards.