Cougars–Ghost of the Mountain

With this post begins a series on cougars and cougar tracking.

The first cougar print I ever saw was at a tracking class around Davenport near Santa Cruz CA.  Davenport is an ocean town, backed by rolling hills and wild lands.  After a morning of tracking lessons, the group split up into smaller bands and we walked around the edges of a large field.  In the middle of a dirt two-track road was one cougar print.

cougar track with penny for reference

cougar track with penny for reference

When I lived in Marin County, my neighbors and friends had plenty of cougar sightings.  With a plethora of deer and no hunting, along with a lot of preserved lands up and down the coast, Marin has its share of wildlife, including cougars.  But its still rare to see one.

I lived in a subdivision that abutted a large swath of open space.  Thirty years ago, the early residents had the foresight to purchase the hills behind their new homes to preserve forever.  They gave the management of these lands over to the Marin County Open Space District.  Once on a trail in these hills, you could literally walk to the ocean about twenty miles away through vast expanses of preserved lands and ranches.  From the Golden Gate National Recreation Areas north to Sonoma County, here is where cougars roam.  IMG_3259

Marin County.  Gateway to lots of hiking, Mt. Tamalpais, Muir Woods.

View looking over the vast protected hillscapes of Marin that stretch all the way to Sonoma County.  This is good deer and cougar country.

Although I walked those hills almost daily, and for years, I never once encountered a lion.  In September, the driest month of the year, the deer would come down from the hills to the perennial stream that ran alongside Lucas Valley Road where I lived.  And the lions follow the deer.  It was at this time that most sightings occurred.  One day a neighbor who lived next to the Open Space area, told me she was washing dishes in the kitchen when she looked out her window and saw a cougar.  Another friend was walking his dog and saw a lion.   Another friend told me her son was hiking on Mt. Tamalpais when he spied a cougar on a rock above him, watching. Sadly, I never had the pleasure of seeing one.

Because of the extraordinary amount of deer in Marin, cougars are living close to people.  California voters outlawed cougar hunting in 1996, yet there has never been one incident in Marin of a cougar attacking a person.  In July of this year a Marin county man was attacked in a remote area of the Sierra foothills by a cougar.  He was alone, in his sleeping bag, awakened by a large paw on the side of his head.  He survived.  This is such a rare incident.  One sound theory to explain this attack is that the man’s snoring sounded like a wounded animal to the cat.

California does give out kill tags to people who claim livestock loss from cats.  But you have to ask yourself:  other states have a hunt on cougars in order to limit their numbers and protect people.  Yet in a state as big as California, these kinds of attacks are incredibly rare.  From 1890 to the present, only 19 verifiable cougar caused deaths have taken place in all of North America–one of those was in California in 2004, the only death since California’s no hunting law began, with an estimated 4000-6000 cats statewide.

Cougar Town

Somehow it just works this way.  I dream up an animal I want to study and know more about, then decide to try and track it.  But it just doesn’t work as I plan.  This winter it was martens, yet I didn’t see one track.  But instead of the animal I had in mind, another one presents itself.  This time its cats, and not just little cats, but cougars.

Remember I saw that mountain lion track, tried to follow it, but lost it pretty quickly.

cougar track with my measuring tape

Yesterday I went back to the area and ran into two older cougar deer kills.  Today I went with my camera to record them and inspect them better.  First I headed to a small rock ledge where the cougar obviously dragged his kill.

Cougar dragged kill to this site

What was left was a lot of fur and the rumen, still perfectly intact.  What I discovered is that cougars open the carcass and remove the rumen like a surgeon.  When you find a canine kill site, the rumen remains are scattered and opened up.  Canines tear their prey apart messily.  Cats are very methodical.  Cats are unable to synthesize vitamin A, so they must get it from the internal organs of their prey, what they gorge on first usually.

Kill site where cougar surgically removed rumen before eating

This site had absolutely no bones, only tons of plucked hair, the rumen, and a large pile of scat.  There was a cache mound but only hair underneath.

Cougars use their lower incisors to shear fur from skin

Cougar scat at a kill site, very meaty smelling

I headed for another site I’d seen yesterday where a male fawn was killed.  It’s near a meadow, so I assumed the fawn was killed in the meadow and dragged to this secluded spot in the trees.  Again the rumen and testicles this time, still intact from over the winter, the fur plucked and a very few bones–mostly the skull which was split in two.

Deer paunch surgically removed

Now after I left this spot I’d found yesterday, I ran into three more old stashed kills in the same general area.  Wow, cougars are an efficient killing machine.  All these other sites were old and had one thing in common that was interesting:  all the sites had a lot of plucked hair and had covered mounds.  Underneath all these covered mounds was only hair, no bones or carcass.  I assumed that this was where the carcass was first dragged to, then plucked.  The carcass was moved after that for a second feeding, but only after the original area was covered.  I am perplexed why the site with no carcass remains anymore still needed to be covered.  If the carcass with covered, then re-visited and consumed, it would seem unnecessary to then re-cover it.  Under all these mounds, only fur.  A mystery yet for me to solve.

One site had scratch marks on the ground (you can see the mound and in front of it the area is clean where the cat scratched with its back legs.  There were scratch marks in the dirt that are visible too).  I understand that mostly it’s males that scratch like this.

Cougar kill that was dragged under this tree and then covered


In middle of photo are cougar scratches. mound behind full of hair

A tree in this cache circle had these marks on it that were old–are these cougar scratches?

Was this a cougar scratch that was next to a stashed kill?

Not too far away Koda found a leg here or there.  I found the hide scattered as well.  This was an older kill, not this winter, so scavengers probably already got to it long ago.

I found several other sites like this, all in a fairly small radius–all around a rocky rise.  How exciting this was to explore this cougar(s) territory and see his tracks.  I learned a lot just reading, exploring, observing, tracking.  I went home with the desire to find a good cougar video, but just couldn’t find any; then by serendipity, I turned on the Monday night National Geographic Channel featuring Wild America with an hour feature on cougar tracking!  What a great cougar day.  Now I hope to see one of these beautiful elusive  animals some day.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 166 other followers