Good mothers

I have been mentioning to my wildlife classes about good mothers of the non-human sort, which I have encountered over time.   I define a good mother as one that will attack if you are perceived as a threat to their young.  I know this sounds, well, bad, but this is the ultimate in parental investment in young when viewed from the standpoint of the potential for injury.  In my experience, birds and alligators have proven to be quite good mothers.  I’ve been pecked on top of the head when walking away from the nest (I wasn’t within 80’ of the nest) of a barn swallow.  This bird weighs little more than 2 nickels.  I weigh in at about 170 lbs. or > 5,000 times the weight of this light but agile flier.  On this note, one of my favorite stories involves a colleague of mine.  While riding his bike to school, he was hit on the head by what he said “felt like a bean bag”.  He stopped and searched around and quickly spotted a likely culprit, a Mississippi kite, perched on a light pole nearby.  He tested his theory that the kite was responsible for the hit on his head by riding in circles waiting for an attack that was not to come.  Giving up, he rode off towards the University and quickly got hit again!  Hilarious (to me at least)!

This last weekend I added one more species to the list of good mothers thanks to my grad student Lena.  She captured 4 bobcats on Saturday, 3 of which were kittens and small enough that I didn’t want to anesthetize them.  Instead, I would handle them with heavy gauntlets and Lena would ear-tag them and get a small blood sample for genetic analysis.  The first trap site we visited was located in a very dense juniper-dominated hedge row or shelter belt.  The kitten took exception to me moving the trap and let me know by hissing and growling at me.

As I’m holding the trap, Lena says something about the mother bobcat. Almost simultaneously I hear the growls, and then I see her: mom is coming directly at me. She meant business! I took a step back.  I never take a step back, or rarely so.  She was walking head up and emitting a sound unlike those they make in the trap.  It was very continuous and ominous, a cross between a growl and a wail.  I stepped forward and hollered and waved my arms and she retreated to the heart of the shelter belt where she had been hiding.  She paced back and forth, keeping her eyes on us the whole time.  Under those watchful (and very angry) eyes, we were able to safely extract the kitten from the trap and move it onto a tarp to tag and release.  I was lying on my belly, hands around the kitten’s neck with my forearms pinning its body.  If you give an animal an inch, they will take a mile.  Weighing in at about 7 lbs. this “baby” bobcat was giving me a run for my money.  This is one beautiful, cute, fuzzy bundle of muscle, claws, and teeth.

Lena does all of the skilled labor and had the cat marked quickly.  However, somewhere in the process the kitten gained a little freedom and I had to secure it again.  As he let out more growls, Lena and I, both lying on the ground, were greeted once again by the sight of his mother coming to his rescue!  What a rush, and what a beautiful animal.  An upset bobcat at considerably less than 10 feet is a bit of an issue for a couple a wildlifers laying helplessly on the ground without anything for defense.  With mom quickly advancing, and me holding on to the unhappy kitten, I think about how her claws are going to feel when she gets to me, and wish I didn’t know well the shape and size of a bobcat’s canines or how a cat’s short rostrum increases their bite force.  I tell Lena she needs to throw a stick at the adult bobcat. Following my direction to a T, Lena throws a stick, approximately the length and diameter of a cigar, at the mother.  Much to my surprise, the small, light stick flicked across mom’s nose and she ran again for the shelter belt.

I don’t know that I was scared so much as impressed and in awe of that cat.  We have caught, tagged, and followed her for a number of years.  She weighs around 20 lbs. yet thought nothing of challenging 2 considerably larger mammals.  If that is not the ultimate investment in parenting I don’t know what is. Plus, how often do you get to look up at a wild bobcat as she walks right towards you?  In reality, if she wanted to have me she could have been out of that shelter belt and on me before I could have gotten to my knees.  This is just one example of why my passion and interest in wildlife grows as I learn more about them.  Surprisingly, the more I learn, the more amazed I am by our wildlife. Plus, it’s a cool story!

Bobcat in Palo Duro anyon

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