Animal Facts: The Birds, Beasts, and Snakes of San Francisco

Because humans aren't the only creatures living in the Bay Area.


For more than 100 years, bison — which many people improperly refer to as “buffalo,” though they’re only distantly related — have been living in an enclosed field by Spreckles Lake in Golden Gate Park. The park’s first two bison were named after then-President Ben Harrison and Sarah Bernhardt, the famous stage actress, and the current lot are descendants of a herd that Mayor Dianne Feinstein’s husband purchased for her 51st birthday in 1984.

Unfortunately, due to bouts of various diseases and other crises — like the time a small dog got into the field in 2013 and spooked a calf, causing it to break three ribs and subsequently die — the herd, which is cared for by the San Francisco Zoo, is smaller than ever, with only about five female bison. Jessie Schiewe

Alexander Sviridov | Shutterstock


With their turquoise bodies and black-and red-orange stripes, garter snakes — a harmless serpent endemic to the Bay Area that can grow up to 3 feet long — are beautiful to behold. But unfortunately, the snake’s attractiveness has worked against them, leading people to illegally collect and sell the reptiles for years.

This, combined with habitat destruction and reductions in the populations of their favorite food, the threatened California red-legged frog, has led the garter snake to become an endangered species.

In 2004, Alison Willy, a senior biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, took her 10-year-old daughter to the coast of San Mateo to find existing garter snakes. But while the area was teeming with snakes in 1983 — “We could see and hear the snakes,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle. “We could watch them cross the trail in front of us and go down to the water” — she was unable to find a single one when she went looking with her daughter. The saddest part? That was 13 years ago. Who knows how few there are now? JS


In 2003, a flock of feral parrots living in the northern tip of San Francisco became minor celebrities, thanks to a documentary (and subsequent book) called The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. The birds — the bulk of which are red-masked parakeets from Ecuador and Peru — have since been spotted all over the city in neighborhoods like Noe Valley and Corona Heights, and it’s estimated that there are about 200 of them. (There’s also a flock of wild parrots living in the Mission, but those are canary-winged parakeets, and apparently the two types of birds don’t get along, so you’ll never see them in the same place at the same time.)

Legend has it the parrots were brought to the Bay Area in the 1980s, ostensibly by multiple people who had purchased the inexpensive birds — which cost about $100 each — to keep as pets, back when it was legal to import wild-caught parrots into the United States. Because the birds are noisy, prone to biting, and vehemently opposed to living in captivity, it is likely that many of the birds escaped or were deliberately released by their frustrated owners.

The good news is that the parrots are perfectly suited to living in urban environments, because they don’t migrate or nest, but rather forage for seeds and nectar. Babies are typically born in September, so keep an eye out. JS

(Mircea C | Shutterstock)


Walk along the edge of Corona Heights or Buena Vista Park in the evening and you may catch an unusual sound for an urban environment: A coyote’s howl. The wild dogs have adapted fairly well to city life and are frequently seen in Golden Gate Park and other dense parks across the city.

San Francisco’s coyotes have a plethora of small wild animals, like squirrels and voles, to snack on, so they are not commonly deemed a threat to people, or even dogs. But there is an etiquette for protecting that relation- ship: If you come across a coyote, wildlife experts ask that you ignore them, turn around, and walk away. If you own dogs, leash them when they are in areas that are known to have coyotes present. Never feed the coyotes or try to touch them. They may look just like big dogs, but they’re part of our city’s wild history, and activists are hoping they stay that way. Nuala Sawyer

(Lisa Hagan | Shutterstock)


With their snaggle teeth, long rat-like tails and beady eyes, opossums don’t usually get the “aww” factor of other wild animals around S.F. But despite their appearance, opossums actually play an important role in keeping the city clean. The furry animals are omnivores, often cleaning up the messes left behind by other animals, be it compost, bones, or roadkill. They’re also immune to both rabies and snake venom, the latter of which helps them keep creatures like snakes, slugs, rats, and cockroaches out of our backyards. While it’s not a glamorous job, these “sanitation workers” generally keep a low profile while keeping our city free of unwanted pests. NS

Check out more stories from the Beasts and Birds of S.F.:

When Pigs (Almost) Fly
A day in the life of LiLou, the first non-canine animal to be part of SFO’s Wag Brigade.

Pets Lap Up Luxury at Wag Hotels
Meanwhile, nearby homeless languish in poverty.

Hangin’ With Officer Edith
Animal Care and Control is a tough beat, but one semi-anonymous city employee’s social media accounts reveal unflagging dedication.

The Real Fancy Feast
San Francisco-founded Nom Nom Now delivers fresh, healthy meals to pups in the Bay Area and beyond.

Pimp My Pup
Yap Stores in Ghirardelli Square makes hip and comfy threads for dogs.

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