The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Ringtail, A Surprise Visitor or a Resident
by Ro Wauer

Few mammals are so distinct as ringtails, with their long, low-to-the-ground body and extremely long black-and-white striped tail. So, when Betty saw one of these gorgeous mammals in our backyard, I wasn't skeptical at all. But since I didn't see it, and since a ringtail had not been seen in our area before, I wasn't totally ready to write a nature note until I too had a chance to see it. But then, a couple days later, and in the middle of the day, one casually wandered across our yard. I immediately grabbed my camera and quietly worked my way into position to document this unusual animal. I did manage to take a couple digital images before it ran into the brush and climbed into a tree where I took a few more shots.

Now, all of my past experiences with ringtails, at Death Valley, Pinnacles, Zion, and Big Bend national parks, had involved individuals in rocky habitats. But here was an individual a considerable distance from what I considered typical habitat. It wasn't until I read Dave Schmidly's "The Mammals of Texas," a super book by the way, that I learned that in east Texas "they live in wooded areas, usually close to water, and they den in hollow trees and logs." Dave's Texas range map shows that they occur throughout the state except in the upper and western edge of the Panhandle.

Our yard ringtail seemed unafraid when I got close enough to take images while it was perched in the tree. And because it was out in mid-day, totally out of character for this nocturnal mammal, I couldn't help but wonder if it was either very old or had been injured. And when I examined some scat, it was full of tiny insect parts, no mammal hair that should have been present. Ringtails are primarily carnivorous. They feed on smaller mammals and a few birds and reptiles, although fruit also comprising a good part on their diet. One of our planted areas, just outside the back deck, had recently been "plowed up" by some nocturnal creature searching for grubs and insects. I had first suspected a skunk or armadillo, but after seeing the scat, the culprit most likely was the ringtail.

Ringtails typically are active predators, patrolling their territory several times nightly; their silent progress often enables them to catch some rodents on the second or third trips that evaded them earlier. They also take to the trees in search of roosting birds and nestlings, as well as various lizards such as anoles. And when I worked at Zion, one individual spent time climbing about the rafters inside the lodge dining room, to the amusement of everyone. Their ability to climb is due to their hind feet that can be rotated outward at least 180 degrees; they can actually run rabidly down a tree truck or steep rock headfirst instead of having to back down like a domestic cat. A must dexterous and fascinating creature!

Schmidly wrote that ringtails "have rather sizable home ranges," especially the males that may range over more than a thousand acres. Breeding occurs during March and April, kittens are born in May and June and are totally helpless. The small, pink, and fuzzy newborn open their eyes in 31 to 34 days, eat meat when seven weeks old, and are weaned in August at about eight weeks old. By their 19th month they look just like their parents.

Ringtails, known to scientists as Bassariscus astutus, are most closely related to raccoons and coatis, all three in the unique family Procyonidae, within the mammal order Carnivora. Carnivora includes several other carnivores, including canids (dogs), bears, mustelids (weasels, minks, and badgers), mephitids (skunks), and cats.

I put out some watermelon, hoping that our ringtail would stay closeby. Although feeding any wild animal is generally against my principles, the Wauer ringtail I suppose is the exception. Maybe it will bring its family to visit, too.

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