Cougars: fun physical facts

Cougar in the bushes“Puma, cougar, catamount; Felis concolor, the shy, secret, shadowy lion of the New World, four or five feet long plus a yard of black-tipped tail, weighs about what a woman weighs, lives where the deer live from Canada to Chile, but always shyer, always fewer, the color of dry leaves, dry grass.” Thus writes Ursula Le Guin in “May’s Lion,” a story in Sisters of the Earth.

An adult cougar weighs between 90 and 200 pounds! Including the tail (which is counted as part of its body length, oddly enough—at least, this seems odd to a vertical bi-ped with a mere vestigial tail), a cougar can measure 6½’ – 8′ in length. This is a big cat! But if you take off the tail length of 2 – 3′, it is a mere 4½’ – 5′ in length.

Part of the problem for me is that the oft mentioned Mammals of British Columbia, which I consult for my animal facts, provides all its measurements in metric, so it has been hard to figure out how big the cougar really is. I hope these imperial conversions will help you avoid the same confusion! (Unless you are under the age of 40, in which case it is no help at all.)

The cougar’s perfected, low-energy hunting method is to ambush prey from a tree or ledge, attacking from behind and biting the neck. They hunt by day and night. Cougars prefer to avoid humans, and likely will hear you and vanish long before you come into contact with them. The exception is young cougars, who haven’t yet learned to avoid humans and still have the curiosity that comes easiest to the young.

Pussy cat lounging in the waterCougars live where deer, their main diet, are abundant. Usually they need about one deer a week to survive. In the winter, if a carcass freezes before they get a second feeding, they can starve to death. Their teeth are not made for biting frozen food. In addition to deer, cougars eat sheep, goats, elk, moose, American beavers (a mammal unrelated to the famous aquatic Canadian beaver!), mice, rabbits, birds, bobcats, porcupines (!), and domestic dogs and cats. In the winter, they will prey on other animals that have been weakened from starvation. In a pinch, they will eat insects too.

Young cougars become independent of their mothers anywhere from one to three years of age, during late spring or summer. These young cougars might need to roam for a long way to find unoccupied territory. This is the time when they are most likely to come in conflict with humans. Tracker Barbara Butler has seen tracks of two cougars side-by-side, and reports these were likely the tracks of two den mates who had just left home and set out into the wild world together. Otherwise, it is unusual for two adults to travel together.

Barbara also writes, in Wilderness Tracks: How to Sleuth Out Wild Creatures and Monkey Valley cougar-kittyWayward Humans, that cougar leaps of up to 47 feet have been reported! They track their prey to within about 30 feet, if not waiting in ambush, and then give a short burst of speed for the attack. However, they can’t outrun a deer for very long. They have very keen hearing, sense of smell, and eye sight, and can hear prey a mile away! They can swim a mile, too! Cougars have been known to live up to 18 years in the wild.

The physical characteristics described here overlap with and influence the mystical and spiritual qualities that cougar can teach us… (to be continued)

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