A night screamer in our midst
Recent sightings in the last few months of cougars in the Whistler, Pemberton and Squamish areas have left many locals, myself included, wanting to know more about these elusive animals. Here in Whistler we are often very well informed about our black bear populations by local researchers.
The cougar ( Felis concolor – "cat of a single colour") is also known as the mountain lion and puma. It is also less commonly referred to as the catamount – which etymologists say is probably a contraction of "cat of the mountain". Other names are deer tiger, night screamer and Indian devil, probably in reference to the distinct, trilling, "demonic" scream of the female cougar. In North American folklore, due to its solitary and secretive behaviour, the cougar is the ghost walker and ghost of the wilderness.
British Columbia is home to the world’s largest number of cougars, with a population of approximately 5,000. This is a rough estimate, as cougars are nocturnal hunters and even at night are rarely seen. Cougar populations are found in B.C. from the Canada/USA border to the Alaska Highway. They are found on most of the coastal islands, with the Queen Charlottes being an exception.
Cougars are shorthaired cats, with reddish-brown to grey-brown coats and white on their undersides and muzzles. They have dark colourations in triangular patterns on either side of their mouths, the back of their ears and the tips of their tails. For camouflage purposes the coat colour is duller in the winter than summer.
Cougars’ heads and ears are small in proportion to their bodies. Cougars have long powerful legs with five toes on their front paws and four on the back, all with long retractable claws.
Male cougars on average weigh 125-185 pounds and females 80-100 pounds. Their body length from head to tail tip is anywhere between 1.1 and 2.5 metres, with the tail being one-third of that.
Cougar kittens have the same coat coloration as the adults except that they are mottled with black spots and rings on the tails and have blue eyes. This colouring remains until they are about six months old, when it gradually fades away.
Cougars are solitary animals and come together only for mating. The species is polygamous and only the females tend the young. Cougars can reproduce at any time throughout the year, although most often the one-six young are born in the late winter or midsummer. The gestation period is approximately 90 days. Cougar kittens open their eyes at eight days and are weaned in two-three months. They remain with their mother for up to two years. Females have been observed as playful and protective parents, teaching their young all the skills essential to their survival.
Female cougars begin breeding at three years of age and litters are born at two-three year intervals thereafter. The life span of a cougar, similar to that of domestic cats, is 10-15 years.
Cougars are a strongly territorial species, requiring an undisturbed, game-rich wilderness of anything from coastal swamps to mountainous terrain. They patrol areas of 200-280 sq km, with the females’ range being slightly smaller. Cougar territory boundaries are marked with "scrapes" which are mounds of dirt, leaves, twigs, urine, and dung. Despite the scrapes female and male territories tend to overlap. Cougars defend their territories by mutual avoidance instead of confrontation.
Cougars feed on deer, their preferred prey, but will also feed on elk, moose, goats, domestic stock as well as rabbits, birds, beavers, grouse and smaller wildlife. They’ll even feed on insects if food supplies are limited.
Cougars are primarily nocturnal hunters with excellent eyesight and hearing. Their agile body type allows them to run, climb and swim. Cougars stalk their prey in dense brush at close range. Then, utilizing the element of surprise, they’ll leap as far as 8 metres onto their prey. Cougars then use their strong jaws and canine teeth to kill their prey with one bite to the nape of the neck. This technique allows them to fell a 500-pound moose.
After feeding initially a cougar may cover the carcass with leaves or other debris to be saved for a later meal. Adult male cougars feed on 15-20 deer, or the equivalent, per year.
Cougars, once prevalent throughout North America, were eliminated from most of eastern North America by the early 1900s due to habitat destruction, the decline of deer, their main food supply, and uncontrolled hunting and trapping. Currently the cougar is not considered a threatened or endangered species in the west but its long-term survival depends on retaining large tracts of relatively undisturbed land for both it and its prey. This is a conservation challenge similar to that of the black and grizzly bears.
For information on remaining cougar safe see http://wlapwww.gov.bc.ca/wld/pub/cougsf.htm
Monthly Bird Walk – The next bird walk will take place Saturday, Aug. 7th. Join Whistler experts in the monthly update of our feathered locals and migrants.
Written by: Sorcha Masterson