Monday, June 10, 2013

Cougar tracking, coyotes and canids.

Puma concolor. Small head, long tail, this one is in the winter coat.

Is the fabled Eastern Cougar moving back into its natural range?

That’s what wildlife lovers are asking. In June of 2007, police in London, Ontario hired a wildlife expert to check out thirty-two reports of cougars in the city and environs.

Proof of deer, wild turkeys, raccoons, coyotes, and “possibly a bobcat,” was found. In late October of that year, a horse was mauled in Parkhill, Ontario. \

“The attack was made by an animal with sharp claws, consistent with a cougar attack,” according to Ontario Provincial Police sources. The horse had to be destroyed by a veterinarian. On October 31 of that year, Parkhill resident Adrian Cornelissen was driving to Watford and spotted a big cat.

“It was huge, yellowish-orange, and it darted right out in front of my car,” in the vicinity of Confederation Line just east of First School Line. “It definitely wasn’t a dog. It looked to be at least a hundred pounds. It had big paws and head…this was no barn cat.”

“I was afraid people wouldn’t believe me and they would laugh at me,” he said, so he called it in to police later, after thinking it over.

That same week the OPP also received a report of a big cat near Confederation Line and Mandaumin Road. Police searched the area but saw nothing.

London area farmer Bill Sweeney insists, “The big cats are for real.”

His encounter with the feline predators came one spring morning as he tiptoed the back forty acres of his farm hoping to get a look at some deer or wild turkeys. He saw a pair of tan-coloured cats, which he had previously seen only in books or in a zoo.

Sweeney watched them, “For a good eight to ten minutes.”

“They were beyond the open woods, just past a high hay field,” he said. “They were about two hundred  metres away.”

One sauntered along a fence line towards him, while the other stayed still.

MickaTP, (Wiki.) Note distinctive shapes.
“There is absolutely no doubt in my mind,” he says.

As he observed them, they bounded into a chase, and a covey of wild turkeys burst out of the tree line.

“People need to know that these are dangerous animals. Be alert, and be informed, especially as regards to your children,” according to Mr. Sweeney.

And on November 15, 2007, a 27-year old Port Franks woman saw a large, black, cat-like animal perched on a branch about thirteen metres from her home. She watched as the animal extended itself down to lower branches then dropped to the ground. She estimated it to be, “at least four feet long.”

When police officers arrived, the animal had left the area. They found no tracks or scratch marks. Police are asking the public to lock their barns and homes, not to walk in the bush or at night, especially alone. Keep pets and children indoors or under direct supervision.

The past five years have seen numerous big cat reports in Ontario.

Cougars are tawny, with reddish-white muzzle, chin and chest. They’re lighter inside the legs and on the belly, and have a black spot over each eye. The tail is the same thickness all along its length, and is comparatively long, while the head is relatively small compared to a lion or a tiger. The young have spots, and rings on the tail which disappear with maturity. With mild winters, there are plenty of rabbits, possum, deer, raccoons, wild turkeys and other small game to support them. It’s only a matter of time before some lucky photographer confirms it.

Rich Beausoleil. (Wiki.)
If you’re hiking, look for tracks to photograph, as a big cat should leave no claw marks. Most cats have retractile claws. Somewhere the big cat will rub up against a tree, and scratch at something just like any other feline. Try and get a sample, just put it in an envelope and label it. You could try sending it to a university zoology department somewhere. Cougar fur will be distinctive under a microscope, although DNA tests are expensive. The husk of a broken claw might be dislodged. If you find tracks regularly, come back later. Mix up some dry-type plaster-repair putty, and make a cast. I would think a big cat would have a pretty distinctive den, if you find one. A mother cat will defend the cubs, incidentally, so you’d better be careful. I found a deer kill once in the woods.

There’s not much to look at, unless it’s winter and you see some tracks leading away.

Then snow conditions dictate how clear the tracks actually are. As for other kinds of spoor, lots of other animals eat rabbits and other small game, and I don’t know how an amateur could really tell the difference. The size of a raccoon, or badger, or coyote ‘spoor’ can be quite startling. A cougar, like any cat will make some attempt to cover its business, and that’s a dead giveaway. No other animal that I’m aware of does that.

The existence of the cougars is not exactly confirmed, but there appears little doubt.

The question as to whether the animals are indeed wild animals re-populating an old range, or merely escapees from zoos and private collectors would seem to be academic.

The animals are clearly here and there needs to be some education as to how to deal with animal encounters in what is usually perceived as a pretty benign environment.

All big cat sightings should be reported to police. It is probably unwise to go looking for a cougar, but if you do, take a friend, and carry a big stick. If you see it first you’re probably okay; but if it pounces from above, it’s really going to hurt, or worse. Cougars usually kill their prey by biting down hard on the neck or throat area. If you’re driving down the road and see one, check the rearview mirror before stopping.

Safety first. I’ve gone looking for cougars two or three times, but I didn’t have any luck. If you have an unlimited budget and good camera, it would be a kind of labour of love to try and get some pictures…give me a call. I know this county like the back of my hand, and I know a couple of really good places to look!

I definitely want to see the big cat before it sees me. The odds of being able to swing up the camera, check the exposure, focus, and get a shot are almost astronomically small.

But it kind of grabs the imagination. The best time to track cougars is in the winter, in daylight, with good weather and visibility. You have to figure out where they will be. You need to get there first, quietly, with the wind just right. Then all you have to do is to sit there and wait and try not to freeze to death…you want to be under cover, with a good field of view in all directions. Don’t forget to look behind you once in a while, and check every big tree on the way in.

They say I’m half cat myself, don’t you know.


Eastern coyote.
Canid tracks are quite distinctive as any dog, coyote or wolf will show claw marks. Based on size and length of toes, this is not a big possum! Note there are four toes and a large pad behind them which looks like two small ovals and one bigger, wider ovate shape in the middle. A raccoon has very long toes.; a possum will have much longer toes, a badger or any burrowing animal will have even longer claws. This animal weighed between thirty-five and forty-five pounds, and the tracks are about two inches wide, and three inches long.

Snow conditions, melting temperatures, and even simple air circulation at sub-zero temperatures will enlarge any tracks. It is a matter of knowing what local weather conditions have been like over the previous week. Generally speaking, any dog will have a human companion. If you find tracks like this without any corresponding boot prints, then some caution is advised.
Generally speaking, an Eastern  coyote is up to twenty-five percent larger than their western cousins, and they do travel in a small, nuclear family type of pack. Timber wolves are extremely rare in Ontario, although there are a number of confirmed packs in the region of Algonquin Park.

“Ki-ki-wah-pah min mino.” (Goodbye.)


Coyotes kill Toronto singer, Cape Breton Island. (CBC.)

Hiking in Mountain Lion Country. (, Hiking.)

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