NATURE NOTES - Number 15 February 26, 2021
Our current topic: Our “Wild Cats”
In this Note, we’ll talk about two “wild cats” that are in our area – or not.
The first is the bobcat. This secretive animal is much more common that we think, and its numbers are steady or increasing. One estimate has one bobcat for every 4 square miles in Virginia, with the highest concentration in far southwest Virginia and the Alleghany Highlands, but its excellent camouflage, keen eyesight and nocturnal habits make an encounter unlikely. Weighing from 10-25 pounds it’s not much larger than a large house cat. It avoids humans but can occupy habitat near populated area – like near Mill Mountain in Roanoke. Its diet is mainly small mammals such as rabbits and rodents, but it will consume reptiles and birds as well. It uses caves, hollow logs and rocky ledges as dens, and gives birth in the spring to 1-5 kittens. Usually there is no danger with bobcats, although a hiker was attacked in 2019 off of the Blue Ridge Parkway north of Roanoke. Rabies is generally not common in bobcats.
The other animal is a little more controversial. According to the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, there are no mountain lions (or cougars or Pumas) in Virginia. They say the last mountain lion in Virginia was killed in 1882. However, according to growing reports, they are here. Each year there are numerous sightings reported in the western part of the state. A number of these have been in the Peaks of Otter area, in areas along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and in far southwest Virginia. There are “unconfirmed sightings” from 29 counties in the state. Some sightings have been determined to be a hoax, a bobcat, a dog, a blur, a photo from Colorado, or some other unreliable report. A quick search on the internet reveals numerous Virginia sightings by folks familiar with the backwoods and the animals that inhabit the area. Mountain lions are common in many western states, and there seems to be strong evidence that they are moving east. Tennessee and Kentucky have confirmed sightings in recent years and Missouri has a breeding population. Florida has a population in the Everglades as well. As the western population grows, young males move to find new, unoccupied territory. Most of the Tennessee and Kentucky sightings were young males. Females are slow to follow, but once they do move east, a breeding pair can be expected. Their main food is white-tailed deer, so if they do move into an area, there needs to be a sufficient deer population to sustain them. These are very solitary animals that inhabit large, remote areas. Most sightings describe a brief encounter before the animal quickly slinks away into the forest. I recall from my youth seeing what I firmly believe was a mountain lion in Bland County. Last year I talked to a gentleman who swears one crossed the road in front of his truck in Carrol County. The questions are always asked, “Why don’t we see them as road kill?” “Why don’t we get photos from game cameras?” Good questions. There are research projects on-going to collect data such as hair samples for DNA testing.
So are they here? Time will tell. They are known to move. Their food is here. We have some remote areas in this region.
Nature Opportunities: It would be great to be able to tell you to take your scouts out and find a bobcat. That’s probably not going to happen. As far as the mountain lion, it may be best to not discuss this too much with the scouts as you might spread more fear than knowledge. Parents might not be too keen in sending their kids out into “mountain lion” country, even though there seems to be minimum danger of humans being attacked. It might be interesting over time to follow reported sightings and any new information from the Department of Wildlife Resources. My personal opinion: If they are not already here, they will be. Stay tuned. Nature is resilient.