If you are visiting Zion or Bryce Canyon National Park and you see something flying through the forests at night- it just might be the Northern Flying Squirrel!
The Northern Flying Squirrel is 5-6 inches long in the body with a 3 ½ to 5 inch long tail. His fur is grayish brown on the back and is white below. He has little folds of skin between his front and hind legs, which he uses to glide from tree to tree. Since he loves the broad-leaved and mixed forests, the Northern Flying Squirrel is another animal that is more likely to be found near Bryce Canyon National Park than Zion National Park.
Rather than truly flying, the Northern Flying Squirrel is able to use the folds of skin between his legs to glide for a usual distance of 20-30 feet. In order to begin his glide, the flying squirrel simply leaps from the tree and spreads his legs. He then controls his glide by moving his legs, using his tail as a sort of a rudder. Immediately after landing on another tree, the Flying Squirrel will often scramble to the farther side of the tree as a means to avoid any owls who may have witnessed his glide and, for all he knows at the time, might be close on his gliding heels! Unlike all other American squirrels, the Flying Squirrel is nocturnal (which of course is the reason he is so concerned with owls.)
The Red Squirrel is a noisy little squirrel, often using a loud, harsh, strident call as a means of announcing the presence of an intruder. The Red Squirrel is easily identified by his rusty red colored fur above with whiter fur below. He is a little smaller than the Gray Squirrel and has a somewhat less bushy tail. He is usually about 7 ½-8 ½ inches long in the body with a 4-6 inch tail.
While you will find several ground squirrels and chipmunks inside Zion National Park, the Red Squirrel is more likely to be found in the higher elevations of Bryce Canyon National Park with its mountainous forests and more abundant Ponderosa Pine. This is not to say that you will not find him in Zion at all- especially in places where tourists are known to sit down for lunch!
Like many animals, the Red Squirrel is most active in the short hour or two just after sunrise and just before sunset. Much of a Red Squirrel’s summer day is spent in cutting down pine cones and caching them in a private log or burrow. During the winter, the seeds found within these cached pine cones will serve as their nourishment. The Red Squirrel is also known to feast on various mushrooms that would be quite fatal to humans. Along with pine seeds and poisonous mushrooms, the Red Squirrel also feasts daily upon tree sap, buds, and sometimes even bird eggs and nestlings. These Red Squirrels are themselves an important source of food to many birds of prey.
Like many rodents, they are known to carry many deadly diseases, so even though they may be cute it is wise to resist the urge to pet them. A bite from a rodent is much more to be feared than a Mountain Lion. If you see a Red Squirrel on your visit to Utah’s National Parks, be sure to keep at arm’s length (or even longer.)
Some animals seem to have found a way to be a pest all over the world- animals such as cockroaches, flies, and mosquitoes. In this case, it is the Norway Rat, which is also called a Street Rat, Common Rat, Brown Rat and many other names. Originally from Asia rather than Norway, this rat reached the colonies in America by way of European ships right around the time our Founding Fathers were writing the Declaration of Independence; and they also reached a small Alaskan island called Hawadax Island back in 1780 due to a Japanese shipwreck (the rats wreaked havoc upon Alaska’s ecosystem and the small island was not rat-free until June of 2009.)
The Norway Rat can easily be identified as it is simply a Common Rat. It has a body of 7-10 inches, a nearly hairless, scaly tail of 5 ½- 8 inches, and has coarse, brown fur. The Norway Rat is known to have an average of 5 litters per year with each litter containing 8-10 young.
While the Norway Rat does, to a small degree, reside in the National Parks such as Bryce Canyon and Zion, you are much more likely to see him in a large city, for whenever possible they prefer to dwell in an urban environment where it often contaminates food and spreads various diseases. Its favorite residences are buildings, wharves and dumps.
The Bushy-Tailed Woodrat, with a body length of 7-10 inches and a tail length of 5-7 ½ inches, has a tail that is quite bushy considering it is a rat, pale, reddish-gray to black fur above and white fur below, prefers to live in rocky areas and in coniferous forests. With this type of habitat preference, both Zion National Park as well as Bryce Canyon National Park are great locations for the Bushy-Tailed Woodrat.
More commonly known as a “packrat”, the Bushy-Tailed Woodrat is well-known for his habit of making unilateral barters with mankind. Anything a Bushy-Tailed Woodrat might take from an unsuspecting camper is often replaced with another item such as a twig. In truth, the Bushy-Tailed Woodrat is not seeking to make a trade, nut is simply dropping whatever he may be carrying at the time in order to take home the man-made trinket, especially if it is something shiny such as a banjo pick or a coin. In some way or another, the rat will incorporate this new trinket into his stick-and-bone nest.
Ord’s Kangaroo Rat is most commonly seen hopping across a road at night, especially in a dry sandy area such as you might find near Zion National Park. Since they love to be in a desert climate, you are much more likely to find an Ord’s Kangaroo Rat in Zion than in Bryce Canyon National Park. With a 4 inch Head and a 6 inch tail and two extraordinarily large hind feet, the Ord’s Kangaroo Rat is the most common of the kangaroo rats and has been observed leaping over two feet at one bound, sometimes even changing directions in midair! They are a light brown above and white underneath, with a long, striped, tufted tail and have tiny ears and a light patch behind each eye.
Not only are the Ord’s Kangaroo Rats able to jump quite well, but they also are noteworthy for their ability to stuff seeds into an external cheek pouch (that is, the cheek pouch is on the outside of their cheeks) and carry them into burrows to be stored for a later date.
The Ord’s Kangaroo Rat uses burrows as a means of shelter during the daylight hours and are nocturnal. They almost never drink water, but receive their hydration from the digestion of their food.
The Ord’s Kangaroo Rat receives its name from its Latin name: Dipodomys ordii
The House Mouse, common throughout all of North America, is sure enough common to both Zion as well as Bryce Canyon National Parks. Dull, grayish brown in color, the House Mouse is 3-3 ½ inches long in the body and has a long, scaly tail of about 3-4 inches.
Most often found around buildings, this uninvited guest survives on all manner of man-made things- not only foods such as bread crumbs and crackers, but even on things like soap and glue. When it comes to nest-building, the House Mouse is known to help himself to anything he can find, from newspapers to pillow feathers and any other soft thing.
Considered a pest species, the House Mouse does not originate in North America, but comes from Asia and reached the New World in the 1500’s stowed away in the cargo of European ships. They breed at an enormous rate, bearing up to 8 litters each year, with as many as a dozen young in a single litter. Though they due not hibernate, they typically will not bred in the colder months if they are living in an area that does get much of a cold winter. Zion and Bryce Canyon National Park both qualify as having such colder winters (especially Bryce Canyon.)
Due to their many predators, the House Mouse rarely lives longer than a year; though in captivity they can live up to 3 years.
If you visit Rising K Ranch to take one of our horseback rides, you will be sure to meet at least a few of our many outdoor farm cats roaming around. The House Mouse is their primary food and is also the primary reason we have the cats on our ranch.
The Deer Mouse lives all over North America, and is plentiful in both Zion as well as Bryce Canyon National Parks. Some have said that it would require quite a lively imagination to see much similarity between a deer mouse and an actual deer; with the only blatantly obvious similarity being the pattern of the fur which is dark brown above and light below (though they can be quite diverse in their coloring.) I do believe, however, that it may also be called the “Deer Mouse” because of its general thriving all across the continent, even as deer thrive. The Deer Mouse is about 3-4 inches long in the body with a 2-5 inch tail.
Rather than seasonal changes, the Deer Mouse’s breeding season is more directly determined by the availability of food (though this, of course, is very often affected by the changes of seasons.) They use many kinds of plants and grasses to build nests and often use the nest, not only to raise their young, but also to huddle together with other adult mice for warmth. The typical female Deer Mouse will bear 3-4 litters per year, with each litter having as many as 9 young (though usually 3-5 young.) This makes the Deer Mouse one of the most rapidly breeding mammals in North America.
In the winter, the Deer Mouse, which is quite social and does not hibernate, huddles together to keep warm in bundles of over a dozen mice together. Since they do not hibernate, they survive on seeds which they have stored. Like many mice, the Deer Mouse is nocturnal and usually finds a place to rest during the day such as a building, log, burrow, or even a bird’s nest. Because of the great diversity of their climate, and the fact that there are over 50 subspecies, it is rather difficult to determine their life-span. However, it does seem that the usual life span for a Deer Mouse in the wild is less than one year (though they have lived up to 8 years in a lab.)
The Western Jumping Mouse, somewhat like the Kangaroo Rat, has larger hind feet and smaller forefeet, which gives him a greater ability to spring into the air, using its extremely long tail for balance. Though he has only a 3 inch body, he has a 5-6 inch tail and has been seen jumping distances in excess of 5 feet! His coloring is quite plain, being dark grey or brown above and pale beneath, with coarse fur. Since he prefers a somewhat more humid climate in the mountains and meadows, the Western Jumping Mouse is more likely to be found in Bryce Canyon than Zion National Park. He prefers to live close to a source of fresh water and loves dense vegetation and plenty of aspen trees.
Most of the Western Jumping Mouse’s diet consists of seeds from various types of grass and herbs, though he will not turn down the occasional insect. A close observer of nature can always tell where a Weatern Jumping Mouse has been feeding by the tiny runways that are left as well as the grass stems whose seeds have been harvested and the tiny grass clippings that will be upon the ground. The nests will be built primarily from such grass clippings and are usually found underneath a log or inside a tussock.
As you might expect, the Western Jumping Mouse is nocturnal, which makes its primary enemies owls, weasels, racoons, skunks and bobcats. Its primary method of escape from such predators is its ability to make a series of zigzagging jumps across the meadows and fields until it finds a safe shelter. They are active only in the summer months, hibernating for as long as 8-10 months depending on the year and the exact location. Though they do awake about once each month during their long hibernation, they do not cache their food as you might expect, but rely solely on their fat reserves built up during the few months of summer. Unlike many mice, the Western Jumping Mouse does not make use of a burrow for daily shelter during its active summer months; but only uses a burrow for the purpose of hibernation.
Usually the Western Jumping Mouse only breeds once per year, about a week after awaking from hibernation, and bears a litter of 4-8, with a gestation period of 18 days. Their life span is about 3-4 years, and most Western Jumping Mice (roughly 60%) wait a full year before reproducing.
Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks are home to all sorts of beautiful wildlife, from the majestic bull elk, bugling in the evening breeze, to the ever social Black-Tailed Prairie Dog burrowing his way across the meadow (and leaving many a hole for a horse to break his leg in).
Among some of the meeker animals here in Utah is the Northern Grasshopper Mouse, about 7 inches long if you include the tail, and dwelling primarily in the prairies and deserts. The Northern Grasshopper Mouse is uniquely proportioned. While most mice have a very long tail, the Northern Grasshopper Mouse’s tail is only about 30% of the total body length. They are grey or even cinnamon in color above, and white beneath, with white covering their feet and the tips of their tail.
When it comes to mice, the Northern Grasshopper is a sure-enough tiger! Unlike the common House Mouse who feeds on household crumbs, the Northern Grasshopper Mouse is 75% carnivorous and preys upon grasshoppers, spiders, crickets, beetles, caterpillars, small mammals such as other mice, and even scorpions! In fact, scorpions make up such a large part of the Northern Grasshopper Mouse’s diet that they are often called the Scorpion Mouse.
The Northern Grasshopper mouse is a burrowing animal, dwelling in burrows they made for themselves as well as left-over burrows from other rodents such as Black-Tailed Prairie Dogs. Because of this, the Northern Grasshopper Mouse is often found making friends with the Black-Tailed Prairie Dog. The Northern Grasshopper Mouse is even known to mimic the Black-Tailed Prairie Dog, standing upright on his hind feet and chirping loudly to claim his territory with his nose pointed up into the air. The Northern Grasshopper Mouse has specific purposes in mind for each of his burrows. The Nest Burrow is used for his primary residence and, since he is a nocturnal animal, he spends most daylight hours inside the Nest Burrow. The Nest Burrow is typically around 10 inches deep and is built at a 45 degree angle. He will usually close up the burrow’s opening each day in order to keep safe and to keep a little moisture inside his burrow in the dry Utah climate. The Cache Burrow is where he stores seeds- even though most of his diet is meat and insects, about 25% of his diet is still seeds and vegetation. There is a possibility that the Northern Grasshopper Mouse even uses some small burrows filled with scent from his own natural oils as Signpost Burrows in order to mark the boundaries of his rather large territory.
The Southern Grasshopper Mouse is generally born between September and February in litters ranging from 2-7. Although they are altricial species, with a gestation period of 32-47 days, and are not able to reproduce until around 3 months, their average lifespan is only about two months.
Nature can be rather cruel, at least in the eyes of us human ones, and it would seem that the primary purpose of the Northern Grasshopper Mouse is a perfect example of such, for that purpose is to carry the plague by means of 57 species of fleas. The plague is transmitted to their friend, the Black-Tailed Prairie Dog, and is a means of keeping the Prairie Dog population in check. Because of their common association with the Plague, or Black Death, it is strongly recommended that you never stick your hand inside any burrows and see to it that your children do not do so either. A bite from either the Northern Grasshopper Mouse or the Black-Tailed Prairie Dog could very easily be fatal or at least send you to the hospital for several months. In fact, due to the Plague, it could very well be argued that rodents such as mice and prairie dogs are the deadliest animals in Zion or Bryce Canyon National Park.
As I said in the last article, you will notice that here in the Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park area of Southern Utah, the country from around 5,000- 8,000 feet above sea level tends to be a “Juniper-Pinyon Woodland” and everything from around 8,000 feet and above tends to be a “Coniferous Forest.” However, as you descend into Zion National Park, there is plenty of country around that is below 5,000 feet and will tend to be a “Sagebrush Desert.”
The “Sagebrush Desert” I am describing is the United State’s largest, highest in elevation and most frigid desert and is known as the “Great Basin.” This desert covers the vast majority of Nevada, the entire western half of Utah, much of Southern Oregon, as well as small parts of Southwestern Wyoming, Southeastern Idaho, and the eastern border of California.
For so many hundreds of miles the desert extends, with its sagebrush and nearly barren ground. It is not uncommon for the cattle ranchers to require 20-40 acres of country per single head of beef for grazing, which is the reason the cattle ranches must be so vast in order to keep in business and keep America fed. This is not to say that there is no diversity of plants and wildlife within the Great Basin’s Sagebrush Desert. There are plenty of areas where the seemingly endless sagebrush will yield to a stream with its long line of cottonwood trees following the water, or to a mountain ridge full of snow in the winter and full of pine trees and aspen, or to a Joshua Tree Forest.
For some small animals, the endless sagebrush provides both food and shelter. So dependent upon the sagebrush are some animals that they are even named after it, such as the Sage Grouse, the Sagebrush Lizard, or the Sagebrush Vole.
Due to the heat, most animals in this terrain are most easily found in the early morning or at dusk, though in the winter the mammals will be out during the entire day. If you ride here at Rising K Ranch enough times, particularly if you take ongoing horseback riding lessons, we will very likely end up loading the horses into the trailer and taking you down into the Great Basin area at least a few times during the winter to explore some of the ancient, and almost entirely unused trails that are all over the desert. The wildlife most likely to be seen while horseback riding through the Sagebrush Desert are Jackrabbits, Kangaroo Rats, Badgers, Foxes, Coyotes, Pronghorn Antelope, Mule Deer, Hawks, Falcons, Eagles (especially Golden Eagles), Sage Grouse, Burrowing Owls, and many small reptiles, birds and rodents.
While visiting Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, you will notice that while the elevations of approximately 6,000-8,000 feet above sea level tend to be a "Juniper-Pinyon Woodland," the areas from 8,000 feet and above tend to be a "Coniferous Forest," with such vegetation as Ponderosa, Douglas Fir, White Pine, Quaking Aspen, Scrub Oak, Maple and Manzanita. Living their peaceful lives within these densely grown forests are Mule Deer, Wild Turkey, Elk, Porcupine, Squirrels (including Flying Squirrels), Snowshoe Hares, Black Bears, Golden and Bald Eagles, Grouse, Owls, Black-Tailed Prairie Dogs and many other small birds and rodents.
It seems around here that, for the most part, the fir trees will grow more heavily in the malpais (lava rock) areas and it is this type of country that is very difficult to ride a horse through due to the usual steepness of the terrain, the abundance of boulders and lava rocks, and the very density of the timber and fallen logs and brush in such areas. The quaking aspen and ponderosa, on the other hand, seem to favour a more pleasant and grassy terrain which is my favorite type of country to ride through. In the “Coniferous Forest” areas of Utah’s Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks, you will find several beautiful meadows, which the herds of deer and elk love to frequent in the early morning and evenings.
Here near Zion and Bryce Canyon, the red cliffs stand out in amazing contrast to the green pine and aspen, making this some of the most beautiful country in the entire world, especially when the sunset lighting blazes across the already red cliffs, or in late September-early October when the Maple and Scrub Oak turn a blazing red and the Quaking Aspen a Molten Gold.
If you are the type of person who feels up to spending about 5 hours in the saddle, and another hour or two learning about horses, I hope you will join us on our “Mountain Ride” and see some of this beautiful “Coniferous Forest” for yourself from horseback!
Because of Utah's drastic change of elevation, there are several types of countryside- from the "Sagebrush Desert" as found near St. George, to the "Pinyon-Juniper Woodland" common throughout much of Utah, to the "Coniferous Forests" similar to the Rocky Mountains as you head into the Utah mountain ranges like the Dixie National Forest between Cedar City and Bryce Canyon, to the high "Alpine Meadow and Tundra" of the High Uintas Wilderness Area in Northern Utah.
Rising K Ranch itself lies within the "Pinyon-Juniper Woodland" country a few miles south of Cedar City, Utah and our "Mountain Ride" takes you high up into the "Rocky Mountain Coniferous Forest" countryside. The change of countryside is due to the elevation change from 6,000 feet above sea level at Rising K Ranch to the 9,000-10,000 feet elevation on the mountain.
The junipers and pinyon pine grow well here at the Rising K Ranch because of paucity of water and abundace of volcanic rock and soil. Most of the mammals and larger birds migrate so that they are here at the ranch from around December- May and higher up on the mountain from June-November, depending upon the weather of the particular year. As the weather grows colder, the deer descend to the lower elevations with less snow and more vegetation upon which to browse. Since deer are the primary food supply of most of Utah's carnivores, the mountain lions follow right along with the deer. Not only do mammals such as mule deer migrate to Rising K Ranch for the winter, but also several birds such as Bald Eagles, which feast upon the carcasses of mule deer killed by mountain lions, Clark's Nutcrackers, which eat the nuts from pinyon pine and Robins, which feed off the junipers and off the early spring's supply of seeds from wild vegetation.
Since most mammals such as mule deer or elk are higher on the mountain during the summer, you will have to take our "Mountain Ride" for a real chance to see them. As for our "Cedar Trail Ride" or our "Half Day Ride" the animals you are most likely to see on a summer-time horseback ride are mule deer, coyotes, foxes, squirrels, wild turkey, jackrabbits and cottontail rabbits and red-tailed hawks along with many other smaller birds, lizards and possible snakes. To have a good chance of seeing any of the larger mammals, it would be necessary to begin your ride right at sunrise or right at sunset, as most mammals, during the summer at least, are rather noctournal. During the winter, especially if there is a fair bit of snow on the ground, these mammals will be much more active during the daylight hours than they ever are during summer afternoons.
If you are ever out here visiting Zion or Bryce Canyon National Parks, or just in the Southern Utah area, I hope you will drop in and take an unforgettable horseback ride with us!