Tawny puffs of smoke able to break a bull's neck and yet so secretive.
Seemingly invisible, the omnipresent but rarely seen cougar is not only the most widely distributed New World cat, but definitely the one with the most names. Depending on geographic region, it is called the puma, mountain lion, red tiger, deercat, mountain devil, king cat, Mexican lion, panther, mountain screamer, silver lion, catamount, even sneak cat.
Found from the Canadian Yukon to the tip of South America, from sea level to fourteen thousand feet or more, these adaptable, tawny cats have the greatest distribution of any terrestrial mammal in the Western Hemisphere, a range that extends over 110 degrees latitude. Equally at home in coniferous and tropical forests, prairies, deserts, and swamps, the cougar is a cryptic, elusive survivor doing its best to avoid contact with people.
At least one of their many names is the result of their surprising range of vocalizations. Although they cannot roar, cougars have been known to chirp, peep, even whistle. Kittens make a series of short, high-pitched peeps when frightened and adults sometimes produce low, hunting whistles before a chase. The name, screamer, refers to the blood-curdling mating calls produced by a female cougar in estrus.
Long and lean, cougars are efficient day and night active predators built to leap, climb trees, sprint, and ambush. Reaching lengths of eight to nine feet and weights between eighty and two hundred pounds, cougars have excellent vision, hearing, and olfaction and use these senses to detect and stalk their prey. Long hind limbs in proportion to fore limbs are an adaptation for jumping and easier movement through steep canyons and ravines. Big, padded paws help the cougar navigate through variable terrain and grapple their next meal. Inch-and-a-half-long canines in concert with sheathed claws make them armed and deadly. Moving its head back and forth as it patrols its home range, a cougar uses its eyes to hunt, scanning for movement. When prey is detected, the eyes and ears of the cougar fix on the site until the source of motion is determined. With their long tail used for balance, these athletic felines can make incredible leaps in pursuit of prey or to silently disappear into the underbrush.
Although cougars prefer to eat deer and elk, their generalist diet can include everything from mouse to moose, including grasshoppers. When larger animals are not available, they prey on smaller fare such as rabbits, raccoons, feral pigs, bats, frogs, and rodents. During his study of cougars in the Salmon River Mountains of Idaho, John Seidensticker documented the fact that both solitary male and female cougars kill adult male elk. This is a remarkable feat considering that bulls weigh seven times more than a female cougar. It underscores the fact that most of us have inaccurate perceptions about the intelligence and predatory skills of these golden cats.
Cougars kill large ungulates by leaping onto their backs from a position of ambush. By grasping the back of the elk's neck with its canines, and pulling the elk's head back with its powerful forelegs, the cougar can snap an elk's neck. Mule deer have been found that were killed by a single crushing bite to the base of the skull. To prevent coyotes, eagles, and ravens from scavenging their kills, cougars often bury the carcass, covering it with sticks and leaves. In this manner, they are able to feed from a large kill for several days.
As the only other plain-colored big cat besides the African lion, cougars come in a variety of shades. In tropical areas, their coat tends to be more reddish-brown. Further north, their fur lightens to silver-gray. In between they can be sandy brown or buff, depending on habitat. Soft as sable, their fur has been described as smelling clean and wild, almost sweet.
When the first explorers arrived in the New World, they reported seeing "lions" in Central and South America, as well as in the early colonies. Although these big American cats are the same color, with both sexes resembling the maneless African lioness, they are not true lions. Unlike their social relatives from the Dark Continent, cougars do not form prides, hunt in a group, or share their prey. However, through a comparative study of their molecular genetics, it was revealed that cougars are more closely allied with the big cats in the pantherine group rather than with the small cats. Genetic analysis also indicates that they may share ancestry with the extinct cheetah-like cats that roamed North America up to ten thousand years ago.
Felis concolor, the "cat of one color," once inhabited the entire continental United States. Two thousand years ago, its range was probably continuous from southeastern Alaska south to Tierra del Fuego. Since 1900, cougar populations across this north-south distribution have been eliminated due to hunting, habitat loss, and effective predator control campaigns. In the United States, only about half of their historic range remains. An estimated sixteen to twenty thousand "ghostwalkers" survive in the mountain and desert regions of the western United States and in parts of southern Texas.
As the largest free-ranging cat in North America, the cougar figures prominently in Native American folklore. The Great Lakes tribes believed that their tails whipped up the waves and storms on the lakes. Cherokee Indians called them klandagi, "lord of the forest," and the Chickasaws called them ko-icto, "cat of god." The Cochiti Indians of New Mexico carved life-sized stone statues of cougars and built shrines in their honor, and the ancient city of Cuzco in Peru is said to have been laid out in the shape of a cougar. So revered was the big cat by many Native Americans in southern California that Christian missionaries found such beliefs an obstacle in trying to establish new missions. The native people refused to kill the amber cats or protect their livestock from attack.
During the early to mid 1900s, British Columbia paid bounties ranging from $15 to $40 for a dead cougar. The bounty system was part of a predator-destruction program based on a belief that cougars destroyed livestock and competed for game animals and birds. Bounties were set to encourage public pursuit of the felines. They worked. In one year 456 cougars were killed on Vancouver Island alone. The excavation of large tracts of wilderness through logging helped expedite the elimination process. Paid, full-time predator hunters replaced the bounty system in 1957. In the United States, similar predator control efforts were waged against the cougar in just about every western state.
Only in 1969 did the first major publication on the ecology of cougars first appear in print. It was the result of a pioneering field study conducted by Maurice Hornocker in the rugged Idaho Primitive Area. Together with friend and research partner Wilber Wiles, Hornocker managed to capture sixty-four different cougars in a two-hundred-square-mile area of isolated wilderness not once, but more than three hundred times during the ten-year study.
Field studies have shown that cougars are typically solitary, spending most of their lives in well-defined home ranges that vary in size according to a cat's gender, the season, habitat quality, and prey availability. Generally, male territories are larger than those of females, with females often sharing overlapping ranges. For breeding access, male territories may overlap several female ranges, but never those of other resident males. Cougars mark the boundaries of their territories with olfactory signposts, or scrapes, specifically by building and urinating on piles of dirt, pine needles, and leaves. In search of home ranges, young and transient cougars are allowed to travel through the established ranges of resident cats, but not to tarry long.
While cases have been reported of a female cougar accompanied by cubs killing as many as 100 lambs in an evening - eating none - and a female bobcat in northern Georgia killing as many as 125 turkeys in an evening - eating only one, or none—such rare events have been attributed to overzealous moms eager to teach their cubs the fine art of killing prey. It now appears that in many areas, cougars do not feed on livestock at all. In other hot spots, such as a few places in Arizona, cougars survive by utilizing calves for 30 to 35 percent of their diet.
At the insistence of ranchers in southeastern Arizona, the Animal Damage Control (ADC), an agency with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, shot and trapped fifty cats over several thousand acres in Graham County between 1988 and 1990. As an end-product of this weeding program, the ADC gave eleven decapitated cougar heads to the Arizona Game and Fish Department as a routine data sample. The heads would have gathered dust and the cats never been missed if a disgusted Game and Fish employee hadn't documented the event. He stacked the heads into a grisly pyramid against a tree trunk, photographed the monument to dead cougars, and then widely distributed the photograph in protest to ADC's actions.
The resulting protest from environmental groups inspired a three-year study of radiocollared cougars by the Arizona Game and Fish Department in a 360-square-mile area of ranches. The dramatic photo forced everyone to look for better solutions. For example, in Idaho, ranchers successfully move their cattle to safer pastures during the calving season, removing temptation from the cougars. In Arizona, the ADC is making more of an effort to identify individual animals that are troublesome rather than eliminating all possible suspects.
Maurice Hornocker points out that taxpayers spend more money controlling cattle-eating cougars in a few isolated circumstances than ranchers ever lose to cat-related predation. Field studies now indicate that killing off cougars through predator-control efforts often backfires when vacant territories are created for transient, inexperienced cougars. In fact, a long-term study of cougar predation on bighorn sheep, made by Hornocker at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, has shown that predation decreases as cougar populations are allowed to stabilize by leaving the cats alone. Deer populations are healthier when these carnivores are allowed to cull the weak and sick.
"The lion plays a tremendous role in wilderness ecosystems," says Hornocker. "It sits at the absolute apex of the food chain. It is an indicator of the health of the ecosystem and helps maintain the stability of the system."
According to Donald Schueler in his 1991 book Incident at Eagle Ranch,
Jeff Richler...Frans Lanting...Stephen J. Krauseman...Ron Sanford...Erwin and Peggy Bauer...Keven Schaefer...Art Wolfe
Barbara Sleeper "Wild Cats of the World"