The “Miner’s Cat”

"Miner's Cat" Woodblock Print by Beverly Hackett
“Miner’s Cat” Woodblock Print by Beverly Hackett

If you are ever lucky enough to lay eyes on a ringtail, you first thought will probably be something like: “What was that?! It looked like a fox crossed with that wacky lemur character from the movie ‘Madagascar’!” Ringtails are hard to categorize. Edward Abbey, famed lover of our desert landscape described the ringtail in “Desert Solitaire” as “an animal that looked like a cross between a raccoon and a squirrel.”

Abbey came pretty close to getting it right. The ringtail (Bassariscus astutus), also know as a “ringtail cat” is not a cat at all, but a relative of the raccoon. But unlike its masked and cosmopolitan cousin, the ringtail is specialized for the desert. It is slender, with a long, black and white ringed tail and short legs. Ringtails are much smaller than raccoons, weighing less than three pounds and are about two feet long from nose to tail-tip.

This desert dweller has skills that would make the most avid rock climber, parkour enthusiast or “American Ninja Warrior” fan envious. Their ankle joints can rotate 180 degrees giving them tremendous grip and their long tail aids in balance. They have been observed using the climbing technique of “stemming” to move up vertical rock faces–wedging themselves in a crack with two paws on each side and walking up it. If the crack is too wide for this, they may ascend it by bounding back and forth between the walls of the crack like a pinball defying gravity.

The ringtail ranges throughout the southwestern U.S. and Central America. It favors rocky, desert habitats with sources of water. Like raccoons, ringtails are omnivores but their diet tends more towards meat. They eat insects, lizards, juniper berries, prickly pear, other fruits and especially rodents.

In the past, miners made pets of ringtails because they were such effective mousers and kept cabins, mines, and camps free of rodents. This earned them the nickname “miner’s cat.” Ringtails are supposedly relatively easy to tame. It is now illegal to keep ringtails as pets in Colorado– cute as they are, they belong in the wild.

Perhaps the most notable characteristic of ringtails, besides their tails, is that they are elusive. They are almost exclusively nocturnal, very shy and pretty solitary. Most people only see ringtails on the side of the road after the animal has been hit by a car. If you know what to look for, you might spot their tracks in the mud after a rain in a canyon bottom. Like raccoons, all five toes on a ringtail’s foot are visible in its tracks, however they are not “finger-like” as in a raccoon. Ringtails walk more on their toe pads like a cat.

Photo by David Wyatt
Photo by David Wyatt

Ringtails are currently considered a “species of least concern” by wildlife conservationists, but their elusive nature makes it hard to be certain how ringtail populations are faring. David Wyatt, a wildlife biologist who studies ringtails in California says they “appear to be locally abundant in some places, but rare to not present in other places that you should reasonably expect them to occur. So, range maps are merely guesses and their true status is just not known.”

Colorado is not monitoring ringtail populations at this time, but local Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologist Dan Neubaum said he’d be interested to hear if ringtails have been spotted in the area, especially if the sighting is confirmed with a photograph. You can contact Neubaum via email at Daniel.Neubaum@state.co.us.

The rocky canyon country surrounding the Grand Valley appears to be very suitable habitat for ringtails, but sightings are rare. Perhaps a keen-eyed and lucky member of our outdoor recreation community will catch a glimpse of this desert phantom. Maybe a hiker will snap a photo of a distinctive five-toed track near a pool in the Colorado National Monument. How enchanting would it be to know that after the sun sets, the ringtails are at play in our canyons?

Photo by David Wyatt
Photo by David Wyatt

Special Thanks to biologist David Wyatt for his excellent photos of ringtails. Please check out his blog http://bassariscus.me

This article first appeared in the September 26, 2015 issue of the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel

The “Miner’s Cat”

Brainy Birds

Common Ravens, public domain
Common Ravens, public domain

At one time in my life, I was a (very minor) celebrity. I had only a handful of fans, but they were loud, devoted… and covered in black feathers. If they had spoken English, they would have cried out at my arrival: “She’s here! It’s really her! It’s the mouse lady!”

I was working at a facility that housed birds, including 3-4 Common Ravens in large outdoor aviaries. The aviaries were huge and enclosed on all sides with heavy wire mesh that kept the birds in and predators, like cats and hawks, out. Because predators were excluded and there was an abundance of bird seed and other goodies on the ground, the aviaries were a haven for mice.

Mice can carry Hanta virus, and will even eat disabled birds, so they were not welcome in the aviaries. I decided to put a dent in their population using snap traps. Every morning I collected a grisly pile of mouse corpses from my traps. It was disgusting. A few days into my mouse eradication campaign, I decided that instead of tossing my dead mice in the trash, I would give them to the ravens.

Common Ravens will eat just about anything, but they love carrion. I thought the captive ravens might enjoy a treat, so I pitched the day’s mice into the ravens’ bowl. The next morning they were gone, only some leftover dog kibble remained.

After a couple of days of receiving mice, I noticed that the ravens got excited whenever I arrived. They flew from perch to perch and croaked excitedly when I appeared. The other people that worked in the aviaries never got this greeting, not even the woman that fed the raven their daily ration of dog food.  The ravens seemed to recognize me, regardless of what coat I was wearing, or if I had a hat or sunglasses on.

While I liked to joke about how the birds knew and loved me, scientists have recently shown that the Common Raven’s smaller cousin, the crow, does indeed recognize individual human faces, and it is likely that ravens can too. In fact these birds are capable of some impressive intellectual feats.

Bernd Heinrich, a biologist who studied raven behavior extensively and wrote the book Ravens in Winter, devised a clever test of raven intelligence. He tied a long piece of string to a branch and attached a piece of meat to the end of it. When a raven perched on the branch, the long string let the meat dangle of out reach below the bird.

But the raven solved the problem. The bird would reach down, pull up a length of string, lay it against the branch and step on it to hold it.  Then it would pull up another length of string and hold it, effectively reeling in the sting until it could reach the meat. Heinrich tested multiple adult ravens and they not only solved the problem, they did it without using trial and error. The birds appeared to study the situation, think through possibilities and then quickly reel in the meat.

Ravens also have a good memory. They cache, or hide, food to eat later and because they have a lousy sense of smell, they need to remember where they put it rather than sniff it out. Young ravens will practice caching by hiding inedible items, they also practice another favorite raven trick– stealing each other’s caches.

Through a series of careful experiments, Heinrich and his colleagues were able to show that ravens can learn which individuals make a habit of stealing caches and they will wait until the thief cannot observe them before hiding their treat. Ravens can also attribute knowledge to other individuals and predict their actions. In other words, Rick the raven knows that Betty also saw where Cindy hid that tasty bit of rabbit. Some animal intelligence experts believe that the raven’s smarts are comparable to those of chimpanzees and dolphins.

So if you ever get the feeling you’re being watched by your neighborhood ravens, you’re probably right. They know your face and they probably know that Wednesday is trash day and that the Walkers have usually have roast chicken on Tuesday so there will be good leftovers in the bag at the top of the can.

This article was originally published in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel on October 25, 2015

Brainy Birds