When it comes to Colorado wildlife, the first animals most people think of are deer, moose, and black bears. But while each of the state’s usual animal suspects boast interesting characteristics, some Colorado animals are downright fascinating in terms of appearance, ability, and behavior.
From scaled animals you wouldn’t expect to find in Colorado to lightening-fast birds and endangered species, this list of animals will give you a new appreciation for wildlife in the Centennial State. Instead of the typical native wildlife, such as elk, moose and bison, we’ll explore the weirder animals that live in Colorado.
Here are some of the weird animals found in Colorado, in no particular order:
Ord’s Kangaroo Rat
The Ord’s kangaroo rat is known for its long, thin tail and disproportionately large back feet, which it uses to bounce around with. If you’re ever lucky enough to see one of these bizarre creatures, it will be during the night under a crescent or half moon when it emerges from its underground burrow after sleeping all day. Ord’s kangaroo rats may appear as cute and curious to us as humans, but they’re seen as vulnerable, tasty prey for barn owls, rattle snakes, foxes, and all manner of other predator animals living in Colorado.
Arctic Peregrine Falcon
When you think of the fastest animals on earth, the peregrine falcon might not come to mind, but it should. These remarkable falcons can reach speeds of 200 miles per hour, making them one of the world’s fastest animals, if not the fastest. Peregrine falcons like to perch along spots high atop cliffs and skyscrapers, and they’re known to team up and hunt in pairs. The arctic peregrine falcon migrates through Colorado, and the state hosts crucial spots for breeding and nesting. They’re currently listed as as a Species of Special Concern in the state.
Armadillos aren’t the sort of animals you’d typically associate with Colorado, but according to us-parks.com, that could soon change:
The armadillo is a relative newcomer to Colorado. There are only two or three reports of the animals to date, but we should probably expect to see them in increasing numbers.
The species that’s increasingly gracing Colorado with its presence is the nine-branded armadillo, which is the most widespread of all armadillos. With an ornate coat of armor comprised of thick scales and claws designed for digging and foraging, nine-banded armadillos are best suited for environments that are much warmer than Colorado, but these animals are highly adaptable. Fun fact: the nine-branded armadillo can float across rivers by inflating its intestines.
Weighing in at an average of 2.3-3.4 grams, the calliope hummingbird is one of the smallest birds on the planet. Frequently found in Rocky Mountain National Park during warm months, this remarkable bird can be identified by the striking magenta flourishes that mark the neck of males. Calliope humming birds are thought to have the smallest bodies of any long-distance migrating animal in the world.
Males execute dramatic U-shaped dives to attract female partners, and are known for aggressively defending their nesting territory against other suiters. When males try to court female partners, they’ll move their wings at an astounding 95 flaps per-second to create a loud buzzing sound. If you’re eager to observe a calliope hummingbird in the wild, head up to the mountains and look in a meadow, aspen thicket, or open forested area during warm spring and summer months.
Currently classified as an Endangered Species in Colorado, the kit fox is one of the smallest fox species on the planet. Its large ears give it astounding hearing abilities, which it uses to hunt animals like kangaroo rats, rabbits, voles, lizards, and snakes. When prey is nowhere to be found, kit foxes will eat tomatoes and other fruits.
Comparable to the size of a rabbit, the kit fox is the smallest fox in North America, and has experienced rapidly falling numbers because of loss of habitat, road accidents, shootings, and trappings. Great efforts to protect the kit fox have been underway since the 90’s, but it’s still considered one of Colorado’s most vulnerable species.
Gunnison’s Prairie Dog
If you’re unfamiliar with prairie dogs, you may think they’re nothing more than annoying roadside nuisances, but you’d be wrong. Found in the four corners region in the American southwest, Gunnison’s prairie dogs have one of the most advanced forms of language known to science, according to Northern Arizona University biology professor Con Slobodchikoff.
This species of prairie dog communicates through high-pitched barking as well as physical touch through kissing and cuddling. With vocalizations that are remarkably specific, Gunnison’s prairie dogs have unique barks for specific predators as well as ones to signal safety. They live underground in complex social structures, and violence can occur when outside members of groups encounter one another. These fascinating creatures are dramatically losing numbers due to human activity like shootings and poisonings, and many have advocated for Gunnison’s prairie dog to receive protections under the Endangered Species Act.
In the summer, white-tailed ptarmigans take on a speckled brown and grey coloring that’s quite beautiful, but it’s nothing compared to the dazzling white feathers it wears during the winter. But if you’re hoping to catch a glimpse of this gorgeous bird, you’ve got your work cut out for you. White-tailed ptarmigans have a knack for seamlessly blending into snowbanks and rocky areas.
These birds are only comfortable in cold temperatures, and are known for bathing in snow when their habitat gets too warm. They nest above the timberline and are the only bird species in North America that spends their full life cycles in such high elevations.
A member of the squirrel family, yellow-bellied marmots can weigh up to 11 pounds and grow to 2 feet in length. Some live up in elevations of 14,000 feet and above, and their large bodies help to insulate against cold temperatures. Another feature that helps these charming creatures survive cold temperatures is the fact that they’re known to dig hibernating burrows up to 23 feet deep, though they usually don’t dig so far down. As true hibernators, yellow-bellied marmots stay tucked in to their burrows from September and don’t come out until May most winters.
Townsend’s Big Eared Bat
With an appearance that manages to be simultaneously cute and terrifying, the Townsend’s Big Eared Bat gets its name from its remarkably long and flexible ears. When its ears are relaxed and laid back, they extend down to the middle of the bat’s body, and during flight, the ears align parallel to the bat. In Colorado, these bats can be found in pine forests, caves, and abandoned mines.
This bat is officially listed as Endangered or a Species of Special Concern in the United States due to its plummeting numbers. Experts point to the fact that the Townsend’s Big Eared Bat quickly abandons roosting sites when it detects human interference.
Though adults of this owl species only reach 17 centimeters in length, the northern pygmy-owl is a stealthy and devastatingly effective predator that surprises and easily takes out birds the size of chickens, which are three times its size. With hypnotizing yellow eyes, white and brown feathers, and a round head, these brutal hunters store their prey in trees and hang them on horns. Once word gets out that one of these owls are near, small songbirds gather around it and make a loud commotion until its unable to hunt and decides to leave.
These astounding creatures are compelling in their own right when it comes to appearance and behavior, but the fact that they’ve nearly become extinct twice over the past 40 years is an odds-defying story that’s both heartbreaking and remarkable. The only native ferret species in North America, black-footed ferrets experienced such a devastating decline in population in recent years that they were declared extinct in the wild twice.
Prairie dogs account for 90% of the black-footed ferret’s diet, and their steeply declining numbers over the past 50 years posed the first serious threat to the ferrets. The second factor contributing to the black-footed ferret’s collapse is the sylvatic plague, which wiped out a vulnerable ferret colony near Rangely, Colorado in 2010. Many other vulnerable populations collapsed because of the plague as well.
Three years later, 300 ferrets who showed they could survive in the wild were released in six Colorado areas. These ferrets were trained to live in wilderness conditions at the National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center located in Larimer County. According to officials, it’s still too early to tell if the 2013 effort was a major success, but evidence of reproduction has been documented. Currently there are over 1,000 wild-born black-ferrets living across 18 populations. Black-footed ferrets are undeniably adorable, but they are also brutal hunters and are known to perform dances to confuse prey.
These animals were compared to antelopes and goats by Lewis and Clark during their famous North American expedition that was launched in 1804. As the fastest land animal in the western hemisphere, pronghorns are built to evade predators. They can reach speeds of up to 55 miles per-hour, and have an ability for sustaining high speeds longer than cheetahs can. While many species feature male animals that aggressively protect territory and mating rights, both male and female pronghorns display violence when it comes to heading off rivals, and females are known to incite conflict among males and mate with whoever wins.
Located in Rocky Mountain National Park and beyond, pikas are closely related to rabbits and look like small versions of them but with short and rounded ears. Favoring high elevations and often seen above treeline, it’s common for male pikas to sing to female mates. Unlike most rodents who live in high elevations, pikas are active year round and favor snowy climates. Experts fear that warmer temperatures brought on by climate change will threaten the pika’s numbers by not having enough snow cover for it to exist in.
These birds of prey are the smallest and most common hawks found in North America. The kestrel’s small size makes it a popular beginner bird for falconry, though that doesn’t mean it’s not an easy bird to handle. Aggressive kestrels are known to hunt and capture birds up to twice its body weight like quail and dove.
American kestrels are sexually dimorphic, meaning males and females differ in ways that transcend sexual organs. Female kestrels are larger than males, and both sexes feature slightly different colored feathers. Kestrels are unique for their ability to hover in place over small prey like grasshoppers and mice when there’s no opportunity to dive down from a perch. They are a fairly common native bird to Colorado, a year round resident to the state.
Bighorn sheep are some of the meanest and most impressive animals in North America. The largest wild sheep on the continent, males can reach weights of up to 300 pounds and earn the “ram” nickname by crashing into one another at speeds as fast as 40 miles per-hour to prove dominance or earn mating rights. The resulting noise is so loud that it can be heard a mile away, and the epic battling doesn’t stop until one of the animals gives up and walks away.
Luckily, their skulls are thick so that the sheep don’t sustain serious physical injuries during this incredible spectacle. Bighorn sheep are also known for their uncanny ability to take unbelievable leaps up and down cliff faces, a skill made possible by hooves that are built for gripping rock.
Wild horses might seem like something straight out of history or wild west-themed fiction, but they exist in Colorado today. The Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act was passed by Congress in 1971 is designed to manage horses and burros living on public land, and the western part of the state offers incredible places to see wild horses.
According to legislation, wild horses serve as important symbols of the American west and are deserving of protection. Since there’s no telling where each wild horse comes from, it’s impossible to classify them as one breed. Some are formally domesticated animals who escaped or were set free, and others are true feral horses.
Now officially listed as a Vulnerable Species by the The International Union for Conservation of Nature, the Colorado pikeminnow used to be seen in plentiful numbers in the southwestern US, and it was an important food source for Native Americans. Loss of habitat and an effort to push out native Colorado fish in the 60’s to bolster sport fishing in the region contributed to the fish’s rapid decline, but the pikeminnow’s numbers have increased slowly over the decades.
True to its name, the Colorado pikeminnow resembles the pike species of fish and looks nothing like the conventional fish Colorado is known for. Pikeminnows can grow to be remarkably large, and ones as long as 6 feet and heavy as 100 pounds have been spotted.
The aforementioned animals are among the most fascinating that reside in the Centennial State. You can learn more about lesser known species such as local spiders or snakes. It’s a big state out there with millions of acres of wilderness, full of interesting wildlife that call it home.