Living with wildlife in Somersett
By Jessica Heitt | Urban Wildlife Coordinator, Nevada Department of Wildlife
Living among nature comes with many advantages and challenges. Seeing wildlife is a wonderful experience, but sometimes nature can get a bit too personal. In the Somersett area, many critters including, coyotes, bobcats, raptors, and deer are a regular occurrence. Even an occasional mountain lion or bear can make an appearance, so how is one supposed to handle all these interactions?
The ubiquitous coyote, found throughout North America exists both solitarily or as a part of a family group. Within the family group, there is an alpha male and female, who mate for life and are the only ones to reproduce. The rest of the group is extended family or older siblings. Coyotes tend to hunt alone, or in pairs, but defend territories as a group.
With many different types of vocalizations; coyotes communicate for territorial reasons and conversing among family members. A common myth is that coyotes howl to celebrate a kill, but in the competitive world of surviving in the wild, animals do not advertise their food sources. Coyotes are omnivorous, preferring small mammals like rabbits, mice and voles, but will also eat seeds, or fruits and vegetables, seasonally.
Despite being the iconic desert mammal, coyotes can live just about anywhere inhabiting every type of landscape from mountains to deserts, and even islands due to their excellent swimming abilities. So it shouldn’t be a surprise to find them in our neighborhoods too. In fact, with the ability to jump a 6 foot fence, a coyote in a yard is not an uncommon occurrence. To prevent this, residents should remove all sources of food and water that may attract coyotes.
Whenever you see a coyote in a neighborhood, attempt to scare it off. This prevents coyotes from becoming too comfortable around humans. Be sure to teach kids how to interact with coyotes, and take proper precautions to keep pets safe. Always walk dogs on a leash, and do not leave small pets unattended outside.
Despite being similar in size and diet to coyotes, bobcats tend to be more elusive. However, these creatures are becoming more and more common in urban areas. Bobcats still do not prefer to interact with humans, so activity is mostly restricted to nighttime. They are easily identified by their short “bobbed” tail, black tufts at the tips of their ears and they are about twice the size of a typical domestic cat. They tend to be solitary, unless a female is with kittens.
Like a coyote, bobcats prefer small mammals like rabbits, and will even eat reptiles and birds. Unlike a coyote, bobcats are strictly carnivorous and do not eat plant foods at all. Bobcats and coyotes keep from competing with each other by dividing territories; coyotes do better in the open desert, and bobcats prefer hillsides covered with trees or shrubs.
In general, bobcats are not much of a threat to humans. They can however prey on small domestic pets on occasion. Supervising your pets, and keeping them leashed while hiking or walking is the best way to prevent this. Trimming back dense vegetation in your yard will also eliminate hiding places for bobcats, and the prey species that attract them. If you should see a bobcat, appear as large as possible, and slowly back away. Never run from a bobcat or any other predator, as this triggers their instinct to chase.
Another iconic desert feature is the cry of the red-tailed hawk. Hawks belong to the group of birds known as raptors or birds of prey. Raptors are predatory birds that include everything from a kestrel, which stands 13 inches tall, to a golden eagle, which stands 3 feet tall. All raptors have exceptional eyesight; up to eight times better than a human. Excellent eyesight comes with enormous eyes; if our eyes were the same size as raptors in proportion to our skull they would be as big as oranges!
In Nevada we have several species of raptors including hawks, eagles, owls and falcons, many of which have adapted quite well to living in urban areas. In fact, Cooper’s hawks, which hunt other smaller birds, tend to hang out at backyard bird feeders- a reminder that you can’t pick and choose what animals you’re feeding. In rare situations, a raptor may look to small domestic pets as a source of food. Keeping small pets inside or in fully enclosed dog runs is the best way to keep your pets safe.
Mule deer, named for their large mule-like ears, are the only species of deer found throughout Nevada. Most populations are migratory, coming to lower elevations during winter where sagebrush and bitterbrush still have green leaves for food. Sommersett is great winter habitat for mule deer.
After the fall migration, male mule deer go through the “rut” or their mating period. The rut peaks in November through December; males will have heightened levels of testosterone and increased aggression at this time. Using their antlers, they will spar with one another, all in an effort to gain the affection of the females. In the spring, males will lose their antlers entirely, and spend the summer growing new ones.
During the early summer you may also find fawns while out hiking. A fawn by itself does not mean it’s in distress. Female deer will leave their young for hours while they forage. Fawns are born with spots for camouflage and are practically scentless. This, coupled with their instinct to lie still in the bushe,s makes them practically invisible to predators.
Human interference can put them at risk. Be especially sure to keep dogs away from fawns, as mother deer is likely close by and can be particularly defensive of her fawn.
Deer can also present a driving hazard. It is important to be aware deer are in the area, especially during the winter, and make sure to slow down at dawn and dusk when deer are the most active.
Deer will most likely wander through your streets and yards. Be aware that the plants you choose to put in your yard may attract deer. Some plants, like daffodils, zinnias and peonies, are more deer resistant than others.
Mountain lion, puma, cougar or catamount; this cat of many names is found anywhere you find deer in Nevada, including on occasion, Somersett. Mountain lions are obligate carnivores, eating mostly mule deer but take advantage of whatever food source they happen to find. Weighing anywhere from 65 to 220 pounds, and up to eight feet long, they are the largest species of cat in Nevada. Solitary and secretive, these felines are very rarely spotted. Roughly 90% of mountain lion sightings reported to the Nevada Department of Wildlife turn out to be another animal altogether.
Mountain lions have massive hunting ranges, typically up to 100 square miles, so if they are seen one day, they are likely long gone by the next.
Living with mountain lions is similar to living with other predators: keep your dogs leashed, make lots of noise when hiking, and do not bike or jog alone. If you see a mountain lion, appear as large as possible and back away slowly, do not run. If you are attacked, fight back. However, you are statistically more likely to be struck by lightning than to be attacked by a mountain lion.
Even black bears have wandered into Somersett on the rare occasion, usually on the hunt for food. Black bears are omnivorous, with roughly 85% of their diet being plants. They have an incredible sense of smell, with the ability to smell food from up to 10 miles away.
To prepare for hibernation in the fall, bears go through hyperphagia, a state in which their full-time job is to eat and get as fat as possible. During this time a bear can eat up to 20,000 calories a day, which is the equivalent of 66 cheeseburgers!
After bears have obtained an adequate fat layer, they will find a den for winter. Many factors trigger hibernation, including daylight, food availability, and weather. On the other hand, if food is available or the winter is mild, they may not hibernate at all.
Concerns we see with black bears in urban areas come from them accessing human sources of food such as garbage, fruit trees or bird feeders. To prevent these issues, pick ripened fruit as soon as possible, bring bird feeders inside at night, and make sure pets and hobby animals such as chickens or rabbits are secured with electric fencing. If you should find a bear in your yard, scare it off by banging pots and pans, or shouting. Report sightings to our bear hotline at 775-688-2327. While hiking, make lots of noise so as to not surprise a bear. If you see one, appear as large as possible, attempt to scare it away, and back away slowly, do not run. Bears can reach running speeds of up to 30 miles per hour.
With its open spaces, mountain views and proximity to wilderness, Somersett provides a beautiful place to live, for humans and wildlife alike. Enjoy the experience you have with these animals, and remember that a little preparation can go a long way in preventing conflicts.