Oregon's three cat species all belong to the same family as the domestic house cat. (Felidae) Cats are muscular but graceful and have retractable claws to hold prey.
Let's see how many you recognize.
We have included two other species native to the Americas. The ocelot, and the jaguar.
The Canada lynx is only slightly larger than the bobcat. Nevertheless, long legs and long fur produce the illusion that the lynx is considerably larger than it actually is.
Behavior: Although adult lynxes usually are considered to be solitary, two to four have been known to travel together, usually in single file, but in good snowshoe hare habitat the lynxes would fan out and appeared to hunt cooperatively. They are more active at night.
Body: Lynxes are grizzled grayish brown in winter, but more reddish brown in summer. It stands about 20 inches tall at the shoulder but weighs about 20 pounds -- scarcely more than a large house cat. It is readily recognized by its long, black ear tufts; short, black-tipped tail; and large, rounded feet with furry pads, which allow it to walk on the snow’s surface.There are five toes on the forefeet and four on the hind feet; the heel pad is unlobed.
Diet: They hunt snowshoe hares almost exclusively, but will turn to killing grouse, rodents, and other animals if hares become scarce.
Lifespan: 14 years in the wild.
Habitat: Lynxes commonly occur at altitudes and latitudes at which snow cover is deep in winter. Alaska across Canada and into many of the northern U.S. states.
Ecosystem role: As predators, Canada lynx are important in regulating the populations of their prey.
Photo Credit: Keith Williams - Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Cougar (Mountain Lion)
The cougar is the largest felid in Oregon, and except for the jaguar, the largest felid in the western Hemisphere.
Behavior: Solitary, ambush hunters, and equally active in the day and night. Mostly they leave "messages" for other cats with feces, urine, scratched logs, or marks they scrape out in the dirt or snow. Mountain lions can jump 18 feet (5.5 meters) from the ground into a tree, and are good swimmers, but don't enjoy getting wet.
Body: Mountain lions are generally a solid tawny color, with slightly darker hair on the back and a whitish underside. The skull is massive; the canine teeth are large and slightly curved. The heel pads of the feet have three lobes which can be helpful in comparing the tracks of a cougar from those of other felids, such as the lynx.
Females, 75 to 105 pounds; males, 116 to 158 pounds.
Diet: They eat a variety of prey depending on where they live, including deer, pigs, capybaras, raccoons, armadillos, hares, and squirrels. Some larger cats even bring down animals as big as an elk or a moose.
Lifespan: Up to 20 years.
Habitat: They have the largest range of any terrestrial mammal in the Western hemisphere, from northern British Columbia to Argentina. They live in a variety of habitats, at home in forests, prairies, deserts, and swamps—they are very adaptable cats!
Ecosystem role: Mountain Lions are an important natural force that helps to balance deer populations and those of other species such as peccaries and wild boars. As a top predator, they play a critical role in maintaining biodiversity and stability in complex communities.
Photo Credit: Priscilla Du Preez
The bobcat is the smallest wild felid in Oregon, with females being considerably smaller than males.
Behavior: Elusive and nocturnal. It can run at speeds up to 25 to 30 miles an hour, and it’s skilled at swimming.
Body: Most bobcats are brown or brownish red with a white underbelly and short, black-tipped tail. The cat is named for its tail, which appears to be cut or “bobbed.” They weigh between 11 and 30 lbs.
Diet: Fierce hunters, bobcats can kill prey much bigger than themselves, but usually eat rabbits, birds, mice, squirrels, and other smaller game. The bobcat hunts by stealth, but delivers a deathblow with a leaping pounce that can cover 10 feet.
Life-span: 10 to 12 years in the wild.
Habitat: Their sleeping spot is usually in a hollow tree or cave of forests, mountains, and brush lands.
They live all over North America.
Ecosystem role: The bobcat is a top predator in its ecosystem and a keystone species in that its absence would significantly affect the balance of other populations in the food web of that ecosystem.
Photo Credit: Animals Adda
The ocelot is said to be a picky eater—even more so than other cats. Most cats remove feathers and fur from their prey as they eat it, but ocelots pluck off all the feathers and fur before they eat it.
Behavior: These largely nocturnal cats have keen sight and hearing. Unlike many cats, they do not avoid water and can swim well. Ocelots communicate with each other using body language, scent marking, and vocalizations. An arched back, stiff legs, and tail held straight down is a threat posture. The cats “chuckle” when excited, may “mutter” to each other, and yowl during courtship.
Body: Mostly, the ocelot has black or dark brown spots arranged in a doughnut shape with dark tan in the middle. Sometimes these spots link together and form chains or stripes running along the cat’s sides and back. The ocelot has two stripes on its cheeks and a stripe running from the top of the eye over the head. The right and left side patterns and color of an ocelot’s coat are not the same. Weight - between 24 and 35 lbs.
Diet: Carnviore. They hunt rabbits, rodents, iguanas, fish, and frogs. They also stalk monkeys or birds up in trees.
Life-span: About 13 years in the wild. *Endangered
Habitat: Many ocelots live under the leafy canopies of South American rain forests, but they also inhabit brushlands and can be found as far north as Texas.
Ecosystem role: Ocelots significantly impact their environment as predators. Occasionally, they serve as prey for larger carnivores and are host to numerous parasites.
Photo Credit: Elmwood Park Zoo
These powerful cats were worshipped as gods in many ancient South American cultures, and representations of the jaguar show up in the art and archaeology of pre-Columbian cultures across the jaguar’s range.
Behavior: Jaguars live alone, and they’re territorial—they define their area by marking with their waste or clawing trees. Unlike many other cats, jaguars do not avoid water. In fact, they are quite good swimmers.
Body: Light tan body with distinctive black markings. Their base color is a tan/orange hue, and their underbelly is white. They have solid black markings on their undersides, and “hollow” black circles on their backs. Their teeth and eyes are large, and have a long tail that gives them balance while hunting. Weight - 100 to 250 pounds
Diet: They hunt fish, turtles, and even caimans, using their incredibly powerful jaws to pierce the animals’ skulls. Jaguars also eat deer, peccaries, capybaras, tapirs, and other land animals, which they prefer to ambush at night.
Lifespan: 12 to 15 years.
Habitat: They’re typically found in tropical rainforests but also live in savannas and grasslands. Jaguars once roamed broadly from central Argentina all the way up to the southwestern United States. Since the 1880s, they’ve lost more than half their territory. Their main stronghold today is the Amazon Basin, though they still exist in smaller numbers through Central America as well.
Ecosystem role: Jaguars are known as a top predator. Their role in an ecosystem is to regulate the population of their prey and, in turn, their prey’s prey. Without the jaguar to control the population of those herbivores below them on the food chain, the herbivores would consume too many plants and upset the balance of the ecosystem around them.
Photo Credit: Ramon Vloon
If you know which animal you're dealing with, it's easier to know how to react if you encounter them in the wilderness.
Notice the differences in walking patterns and in the pads of the feet.
Are the front and hind paws the same?
Below you'll find four types of tracks.
These tracks came from a domesticated house cat, a bobcat, a cougar, and a canda lynx.
Who do each set of paws belong to?
(Try your best, then check your answers at the bottom of this page.)
Important Tips for Cougar Safety
If You Recreate in Cougar Country
Be aware of your surroundings at all times.
Leave your dog at home or keep it on a leash. Pets running free may lead a cougar back to you.
Hike in groups. Make noise to alert wildlife of your presence.
Keep children close to you. Teach them about wildlife.
Keep campsites clean. Sleep 100 yards from cooking areas.
Store food in animal-proof containers.
Carry deterrent spray.
Be cautious at dusk and dawn.
Never feed any wildlife. Prey attracts predators.
Do not approach any wildlife; stay at least 100 yards away.
Steer clear of baby wildlife. Mother is likely nearby.
Be alert when sitting quietly or stopping to rest.
Be especially alert at dawn and dusk when cougars are most active.
Be aware that animal calls and animal kills can attract a cougar.
If You Encounter a Cougar
Cougars often will retreat if given the opportunity. Leave the animal a way to escape.
Stay calm and stand your ground.
Maintain direct eye contact.
Pick up children, but do so without bending down or turning your back on the cougar.
Back away slowly.
Do not run. Running triggers a chase response in cougars, which could lead to an attack.
Raise your voice and speak firmly.
If the cougar seems aggressive, raise your arms to make yourself look larger and clap your hands.
If in the very unusual event that a cougar attacks you, fight back with rocks, sticks, bear or pepper spray, tools or any items available.
Source: The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife
What new fact were you surprised by? Why?
Which animals have you seen in person before? Did their behavior match what is written here?
Which animals interests you most? Why?
Choose an animal from this list to research more. How do they make their homes? Do they mate for life? Why are they endangered? etc.
Choose two (or three!) animals from this list and combine them. Create a drawing of your new animal. Give your new species a name. Where does it live? What does it eat? What are its habits?
Pick an endangered animal and search for organizations that support them. Why is it so important that this species be preserved? How could you get involved and help out?
5. Cougar/ Mountain Lion: Among the felines, cougar tracks are the largest (greater than 3"), about the size of the domestic dog.
6. Lynx: Though smaller in stature, lynx tracks are the same size as a cougar, but are not as defined due to the fur around their paws.
7. Bobcat: Bobcats have smaller tracks (2”) that are often confused with coyote or fox. Look for a lack of nails and a round-shaped print to identify the bobcat track from its canine counterparts.
8. House Cat: The prints of a house cat are small (1 to 1.5”). Similar to the domestic dog, the house cat also tends to meander when walking and does not try to conserve energy.
Sources: The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, San Diego Zoo, National Geogaphic, The Elmwood Park Zoo, The National Wildlife Federation, Green Belly, Cat Skill Mountaineer