Home of the Wild: Discover the Bay Area’s Abundant Wildlife

Where to spot whales, seals, sea birds and more in San Francisco

When Catalan missionary and explorer Father Pedro Font made his way to Northern California in the 1770s, he observed, “The port of San Francisco... is a marvel of nature, and might well be called the harbor of harbors... And I think if it could be well settled like Europe there would not be anything more beautiful in all the world.” Nearly 250 years later, San Franciscans often agree that our native flora and fauna are exactly the reason so many have settled in the Bay Area.

On the Land

Coyote in San Francisco
Coyote (©Janet Kessler/wildcarebayarea.org)

Explore San Francisco’s parks, and you might spot a rabbit, coyote or red fox, all of which make homes in the city. Rarer big cats—bobcats and mountain lions—are often found north in the Marin Headlands and south in San Mateo County. Take a walk in the woods and you might see California quails scuttle across the path. Hike or drive up to the top of Twin Peaks at dusk, and you’ll get up close and personal with fearless raccoons scrounging for scraps. Don’t get too close!

Around town, you’ll see a variety of butterflies flitting past your head. There are over 140 species of butterfly in the Bay Area, including a high concentration of the nation’s smallest butterfly, the Western Pygmy Blue. If you stay out late, another native species might fly past. San Francisco has about a dozen species of bats, many of which roost in redwood trees.

Anna's Hummingbird in San Francisco
Anna's Hummingbird (©Michael Hancock/wildcarebayarea.org)

Don’t look up, because raptors—including hawks and falcons—often swoop over the city, even downtown. (These big birds are public servants, helping to control the local seagull population.) On the other side of the size spectrum are hummingbirds, a common sight in areas with dense foliage. The Presidio is a great area to spot two types of this speedy bird: Anna’s and Allen’s.

Golden Gate Park is right in the middle of the Pacific Flyway. Hundreds of species of migratory birds stop in the park every year. The park is also a haven for migrating insects, including many of those rare butterflies that are attracted to San Francisco’s tall trees and cool breezes.

Under the Sea

Orca off the coast of San Francisco
Orca (©Tory Kallman/wildcarebayarea.org)

Whale watching is a favorite pastime in San Francisco, and for good reason. Head out onto the high seas, and you can often spot blue, gray and humpback whales, as well as orcas and harbor porpoises, which resemble dolphins. Closer to the coastline, Pacific harbor seals are known to haul out (or come ashore) to warm their big, blubbery bodies in the sun. Swimmers, boaters and beachgoers have spotted bottlenose dolphins within the city limits, at Ocean, Baker and China beaches. Sea otters, gone from the Bay Area for over a hundred years, are starting to make a comeback.

Another showy sea-lebrity is impossible to miss at Fisherman’s Wharf. On sunny days, San Francisco’s resident sea lions sprawl—and sometimes brawl—across Pier 39. Nearly 900 sea lions migrate to the pier each year. They’ve been a regular attraction since 1990, when a dozen or so first swam up. And, fun fact: most are male. All that testosterone, and it’s no wonder a few flippers fly.    

San Francisco Brown Pelicans
Brown Pelicans (©Martita Smith/wildcarebayarea.org)

Birders flock to San Francisco to spot seabirds that fly along the coast and sometimes swoop inland, too. Herons, ducks and sandpipers are plentiful. Spot a majestic bird making a smooth, sudden headfirst plunge into the icy water? It’s probably a brown pelican, which makes its year-round home all along the coast.

From the Earth

Aquatic bromeliad found in San Francisco
Aquatic Bromeliad (©Kevin J. Frest)

You can learn about the Bay Area’s rich native plant diversity, including succulents, aquatic plants and the state flower, the California poppy, at several dedicated destinations. The Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park is a botanical wonderland, housing nearly 2,000 plant species in five galleries.

A number of urban gardening and native plant nursery projects around town cultivate endemic California species. The Native Plant Nursery in Golden Gate Park grows over 125,000 native species for restoration projects all along the coast.

Local Legends

San Francisco is known for two other unusual residents. The wild parrots of Telegraph Hill, the subjects of an award-winning documentary “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill,” don’t just stay in their neighborhood. You can hear their delightful screeching as they migrate through the Financial District and along the Embarcadero. 

In Golden Gate Park, some of the city’s oldest (and hairiest) residents can be found in the American bison paddock. Rise and shine if you want a close-up. The herd generally congregates close to the perimeter fence in the morning.