We all know the thrill of seeing wildlife along a trail. It might be a woodpecker hammering its beak into a tree, a lizard darting across our path or a deer grazing nearby. Many of us look forward to these encounters when we are hiking, but can they be dangerous?
Read onward to find tips on bobcats, coyotes, mountain lions, badgers, raccoons, deer, birds and snakes!
First of all, there are basic rules for whatever kind of critter crosses your path:
Those things said, there are additional pointers to keep in mind when you see specific critters in the wild.
Did you know that mountain lions, pumas, cougars and panthers are all the same animal? Whatever you call them, they live throughout California, usually in foothills or mountain ranges near populations of deer, which are their primary food. Though it’s very unusual to encounter them on a trail, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with how to react if you do.
Bobcats have an important place in the food chain controlling the population of rodents. They look a lot like a pet cat, only larger. Their tail is only about six inches long (thus their name) and their ears are pointed with tufts of hair. They tend to live in the “urban fringe,” where developed areas meet open space.
Just like bobcats look like big cats, coyotes can look like dogs. They are related to dogs, but coyotes’ legs and snouts tend to be longer and their chests shallower than most dogs. Coyotes live in multiple habitats, including plains, forests, mountains and deserts. They are very intelligent and eat rodents, fruit and insects, although they can work together to kill deer. Naturally wary of humans, people who feed them teach them to come into human areas for food, putting pets and people at risk.
All three of these animals have a serious hunting instinct, so don’t turn your back on them or run. That makes you look like prey and their instinct will be to chase you! Here are some other tips:
One of the stars of POST’s coyote and badger video, badgers are low to the ground. They use their strong legs and long claws to dig burrows and catch worms, rodents and fruit. Interestingly, dachshunds were bred to hunt badgers and the word dachshund in German actually means “badger hound!” The burrowing badger lives in grasslands, fields and pastures. They are mainly active at dawn and dusk, meaning you aren’t likely to bump into one on the trail, but you never know!
Raccoons can look adorable, but they pack a punch. You may also see them in your neighborhood. Unfortunately, they have learned that foraging food from trash cans is easier than finding berries, nuts, frogs, mice and birds’ eggs. They live in hollow trees and burrows, as well as clumps of brush. They are nocturnal, so it isn’t likely you’ll see them unless you are out at night and their glow-in-the-dark eyes alert you to their presence.
Badgers and raccoons may look cute, but don’t approach them on the trail! If they feel threatened, they will hiss, growl and bite, and their strong legs, long claws and powerful jaws make them dangerous adversaries. Stay a safe distance away and observe them. They are unlikely to attack unless provoked, but you don’t what to take the chance!
Northern California deer are mainly mule deer, whose ears are large like those of their namesake. They can be seen along trails and are also often spotted along Highway 280. You will mostly see them browsing for food in open meadows, but they sleep in protected areas where you may encounter them as well.
Although deer seem tame and safe to approach, you should never do so. Their hooves are very hard and can do a lot of damage if they kick to protect themselves or their young. Of course, the antlers of male deer (bucks) are also very dangerous, being pointed as well as bone-hard.
One other note about deer. They purposely tuck their young (fawns) into hidden areas and leave them alone. The fawns aren’t abandoned, it is actually safer for them because the mother’s scent can draw other animals to the newborn. If you encounter a fawn alone in the wild, leave it alone unless it is obviously injured and then and call an animal rehabilitation center for instructions.
Birds come in an incredible array of types and sizes, from tiny hummingbirds to stately egrets and great blue herons. Regardless of their size, don’t chase or touch them. Some birds have a coating on their feathers that reacts with the oils on human skin, hindering birds’ ability to fly or repel water from their feathers. Always give them plenty of room. Often, they’ll take off soon enough on their own. You don’t need to frighten them to make them fly.
One exception is if you find newborn birds on the ground. If they are a hatchling (closed eyes, featherless with down or only stubbly feathers) or nestlings (open eyes but just the start of feathers) you can gently return then to their nest, since they have no way to keep warm outside it. If you can’t find the nest, you can move it to a shaded area nearby or just leave it where it is so the parents can find it. If they are fledglings (open eyes with short but fully developed feathers) leave them where they are! They are figuring out how to fly and hopping about on the ground is part of the process.
Snakes are important to our local ecosystems because they help keep small rodent populations under control. They can’t regulate their body temperature so you may find them on the trail soaking up sun when it is chilly or in the shade trying to cool down if it is hot. They also don’t have external ears so they can’t hear you, but they can feel the vibration of your footsteps on the ground.
Some snakes are poisonous (rattlesnakes) and some are not (kingsnakes), but most people can’t tell the difference (rattlesnakes and gopher snakes look a lot alike!), so you should leave all of them alone. Don’t try to pick them up or disturb them in any way—and that includes waving things at them, which may agitate them enough to bite. Most of them will leave on their own as soon as they know you are there. If the snake is on the trail and doesn’t move, don’t try to step over or around it unless you can pass at least three feet away without going off the trail.
One last piece of advice. If you find an animal that appears to injured or abandoned – including babies – in general you should avoid the urge to “save” them. Don’t try to touch or pet them or you may endanger their life. You will leave behind your scent which can attract predators.
The best thing for you to do if you see an injured animal is call a local wildlife rescue center and tell them what you found and where. They will know if it is safe to pick it up and transport it, as well as how to help so it poses the least risk to the animal.
In POST’s working area, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife suggests:
Now, it’s time to stop reading and get out on the trail! Appreciate the beauty and variety of your wild companions but do it from a safe distance!
Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) protects open space on the Peninsula and in the South Bay for the benefit of all. Since its founding in 1977, POST has been responsible for saving more than 87,000 acres as permanently protected land in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. Learn more