Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park


Mule Deer

When driving through or hiking in Black Canyon, you have the opportunity to see a lot of different kinds of wildlife: elk, coyotes, magpies, eagles. But by far one of the most elegant and visible animals is the mule deer.

Mule deer are amazing animals. They have adapted to many different types of habitats and seem to thrive in all of them. As you look into the depths of the canyon it may be hard to believe that these animals are just as at home trekking to the canyon bottom as they are meandering the oak flats on the rims. Even so, Black Canyon is often not an easy place for them to be.

By far their easiest season is the summer. When the snows begin to melt on the canyon rims, the deer move up from the farm fields and meadows of the Uncompaghre Valley, where they may have spent their winter, to take advantage of new food sources such as wildflowers and flowering shrubs and trees. The summer is the time when the fawns, does, and bucks need to put on weight for the leaner fall and winter seasons.

Summer also brings certain dangers, especially for new mothers and their fawns. When the fawns are born in late May or early June, they are very vulnerable to attack by predators. What is their defense? Speed. Mule deer females and fawns are built for speed. With smaller bodies and an acute sense of hearing, they alert one another early of danger and are able to use a technique called stotting, or bounding, to avoid being caught by bears, coyotes, and mountain lions.

The mule deer is named for its large mule-like ears which act like a satellite dish to collect the smallest of noises and alert the deer of possible danger.

After spending all summer fattening up and avoiding predators, the deer begin to gear up for winter. For the bucks this also means attracting females and mating during the rut from September through December. For the females, this means selecting the best mate possible. Called “spike” bucks, due to their less than stellar antler growth, young males will attempt to mate with the females. They are often met with opposition, as they have not yet earned mating rights. The ideal buck is one who is large and healthy, typically indicated by antler size. The does tend to have twin fawns their first year of breeding, then single fawns the following seasons.

Following the rut, the males focus less on mating, and more on surviving the harsh winters. Typically they head to lower elevations. You can often see them in the fields on the way up to the Black Canyon in the winter foraging where the snow is not as deep. In deep snow, the mule deer have to rely on more readily available foods like sagebrush and juniper and in very lean times, bark and last summer’s growth on branches. Deer are ruminants, or have a chambered stomach and are able to digest the plant and gain nutrients from without being affected by the toxins.

Winters in the canyon can last well into March. As temperatures warm, the deer follow the melting snow and the new plant growth. Green shoots of new plants are a welcome departure from dried grasses and bark that they had been eating all winter. This is a season for replenishment. The bucks and does take advantage of high nutrient foods and begin to restore some of the weight and strength lost over the long winter.

The mule deer of Black Canyon are opportunistic, well adapted, and resourceful. These animals have not only made the most of what at some times can be a difficult place, but are thriving in it.


Canyons aren't barriers to birds. In search of food and water, birds can readily fly to depths and heights forbidding for other animals, including humans.

The birds below represent those that live within the various habitats of the canyon, from the rim (top, Great horned owl) to the river (bottom, American dipper).

White-throated swifts are aerial feeders of insects whose scientific name means "rock-inhabiting air sailor." Pairs even copulate in a downward, spinning flight that only looks out of control. Flying on the level, these swifts are one of the swiftest of all birds. White-throated swifts nest high on canyon walls in rock crevices and feed mostly in early morning and at evening, when flying insects are most active.

Canyon wrens sing so wildly, sweetly, and hauntingly that they even figure in a lot of present day music. These wrens are far more often heard than seen. They nest on ledges like Peregrine falcons do, laying eggs in depressions. They hop and poke about ledges and alcoves looking for spiders and insects to eat. At Black Canyon these wrens are seldom if ever seen down along the river itself.


Wildlife Watching

Black Canyon is a great place to go to observe mammals in their native and wild habitat. Wild animals are an important and vital part of our natural ecosystem. We humans can learn a great deal by carefully observing animals.

Wildlife watching can be extremely enjoyable and rewarding if done with care and by keeping a few watching ethics in mind. To maximize your viewing enjoyment and success:

  • familiarize yourself with the birds and mammals of the area
  • know what time of day animals are active
  • learn about their habitat
  • learn wildlife signs such as tracks and scat
  • bring binoculars
  • wear clothing that blends in with environment
  • take a hike or walk and tread quietly
  • sit still and watch from behind cover
  • leave dogs at home, they often scare wildlife away

The best way to view and enjoy a wild animal is from a distance with binoculars. When you come across an animal, sit still, watch from behind cover like a shrub or tree, and enjoy!

We need to use common sense when observing wild animals, please remember that life in the wild has its own stresses.

  • Never disrupt, approach or attempt to feed wild animals, this is dangerous to you and the animal.
  • Never approach nesting or denning sites, this could be detrimental to the survival of the young.
  • Back off immediately if the animal seems stressed, agitated or angry.
  • Respect the space and territory of wildlife.

Wildlife watching is much more enjoyable and successful if we can watch them performing their natural activities like nursing young, playing, fighting, foraging or hunting without their knowledge of our presence. Please enjoy viewing wildlife to the fullest extent but keep respect and consideration for the animals' well being in mind.

Look for the Yellow-bellied Marmot, a large rodent who lives and sunbathes on rocky out crops and ledges.

Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels, Least and Colorado Chipmunks and Mountain Cottontails can be seen just about anywhere in the Black Canyon.

Also look for the pretty spotted coats of the gray Rock Squirrel.

Mule Deer can be found throughout the Black Canyon. Look for the spotted fawns in early summer. Be careful driving along U.S. Highway 50 and CO Highways 347 and 92 at dawn and dusk, they frequently cross the road.

Occasionally seen around Black Canyon are Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep.

Elk, or Wapiti, are occasionally seen in early fall and winter, look for them in grassy clearings and forested areas. They spend most of their time at higher elevations in summer.

Coyotes are more often heard than seen. Listen for their pre-dawn songs from either of the campgrounds.

Skunks, Badgers, Long-tail Weasels and Ringtail Cats are occasionally seen at dusk and dawn along trails, in the inner canyon, along roadsides and in the campgrounds.

The luckiest of visitors will get a glimpse of the great "ghost of the Rockies". The Mountain Lion may be seen in early morning and evening. This incredibly elusive mammal is occasionally seen slipping off into the oak and juniper forests and across the road. Bobcat and Black Bear are occasionally seen in this manner as well.

Walking along the trails at Black Canyon, you might cross paths with a Smooth Green Snake or a Great Basin Gopher Snake.

Also occurring along roadsides, trailside thickets and rock gardens are Garter Snakes and Striped Whipsnakes. Come see a Park Ranger to learn how to identify these non-venomous snakes.

A variety of Lizards and Salamanders can also be found.

Here are some tips for the unlikely encounter with larger wildlife:

Black Bears

  • Do not run.
  • Back away slowly.
  • Break eye contact.

Mountain Lions

  • Do not run.
  • Make yourself look bigger.
  • Back away slowly.
  • If attack seems imminent, act aggressively throwing rocks or a large stick.

Bird watching in the area is excellent, especially in spring and early summer. Here is just a taste of some of the feathered friends that spend time in the area.

Look for the fastest bird in the world, the Peregrine Falcon. In spring and early summer look for this amazing bird in the vacinity of the Painted Wall.

Blue Grouse can be observed in the sagebrush areas. Look for this beautiful bird along roadsides and thickets.

Look for birds of prey such as the Cooper's Hawk and Red Tailed Hawks.

Also up above the canyon rims look for Turkey Vultures and Golden Eagles riding thermals.

Listen to the graceful and unforgettable note of the Canyon Wren in the inner canyon and from Rock Point in the morning.

Come in to the visitor center and share your wildlife encounters and experiences with a Park Ranger. Please report any unusual or rare sightings.