Mountain Lions Are Keystone Providers for Birds!

Mountain Lions Are Keystone Providers for Birds: Mountain Lion, (Felis concolor,) Courtesy US FWS, Larry Moats, Photographer
Mountain Lion
Felis concolor
Courtesy US FWS
Larry Moats, Photographer

Cougar or Mountain Lion(Felis concolor). Courtesy US FWS Cougar or Mountain Lion
Felis concolor
Courtesy US FWS

Yellow-billed Cuckoo, (Coccyzus americannus,) Courtesy and Copyright Eric Peterson, Photographer Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Coccyzus americannus
Courtesy & © Eric Peterson, Photographer

When we think about World Migratory Bird Day, we often think about providing for their needs with water, bird feeders, and native plants, and hopefully we are keeping cats indoors and taking steps to prevent the lethal danger of window-collisions. We may even think about the importance of sponge city landscaping and beaver dams to slow and store snowmelt runoff, but it is the Mountain Lion which has the unique distinction of being a keystone provider ranked as the top vertebrate feeder of birds – in fact they “feed more mammals and birds than any other predator, increasing the number of animal interactions – the links in food webs so essential to maintaining ecosystem resilience. And they are ecosystem engineers on top of this as well.”
(1) Researchers have found that large carcasses create essential habitat for carrion-dependent beetles – these are not just food for beetles, but the very places beetles spend their lives, hiding from predators, seeking mates, raising young, and morphing from larvae [lahr-vee] into adult forms which disperse in search of the next carcass to begin the cycle all over again. (2)The food web gets to the very heart of bird migration, and the very real challenge of ensuring a future in which people and birds can thrive with dwindling habitat resources essential for survival.

Consider the Yellow-billed Cuckoo [koo-koo], one of the World Migratory Bird Day Ambassador species, to highlight the importance of water and riparian habitat for birds. A long-distance migrant, the Yellow-billed Cuckoo breeds in the United States, Mexico, and the Caribbean, and migrates through Central America to reach its wintering grounds in South America. It seeks wooded habitats with water nearby, where it feasts mostly on insects, especially caterpillars, during the spring and summer, transitioning to a more fruit- and seed-heavy diet in the fall and winter.

The Yellow-billed Cuckoo was selected for this year’s World Migratory Bird Day campaign to help shed light on the decline of riparian habitats along our rivers, streams, and freshwater lakes, particularly in the American West, where species that rely on these areas are experiencing population declines and are in possible danger of extirpation from some states. These western riparian species include Summer Tanager, Yellow Warbler, Willow Flycatcher, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Yellow-billed Cuckoo. Loss of native forest to farmland, housing, and other development has led to significant population declines in these species, especially in the case of the Cuckoo, which relies on large patches of streamside forest for breeding.

The Yellow-billed Cuckoo is becoming an increasingly rare bird in the American West. We need to increase awareness and encourage decision makers to explore ways to protect riparian areas, remove invasive species, restore habitat, and conserve water. World Migratory Bird Day 2023 aims to contribute to these efforts by highlighting the importance of water conservation and habitat management for migratory birds, and by providing resources to help promote these important issues. Bird Day is every day, but especially mid-May and mid-October. Learn more at, and learn more about how to conserve water for sustaining bird life!

I’m Hilary Shughart with the Bridgerland Audubon Society, and I am Wild About Utah!

Images: Mountain Lion images Courtesy US Fish & Wildlife Service, Larry Moats, Photographer
     Yellow-beaked Cuckoo, Courtesy & Copyright, Eric Peterson, VikingPhotographyUtah
Featured Audio: Courtesy & Copyright © Kevin Colver,
Text: Hilary Shughart, President, Bridgerland Audubon Society
Additional Reading: Hilary Shughart and Lyle Bingham,

Additional Reading

WildAboutUtah pieces by Hilary Shughart,

In research recently published in the prestigious journal, Oecologia, we show that mountain lions are ecosystem engineers that create essential habitat for carrion-dependent beetles. It is the first research to show that an apex predator plays the role of engineer. In collaboration with graduate researcher, Josh Barry, and Dr. Melissa Grigione at Pace University, we collected and identified 24, 209 beetles across 18 sites, representing 215 unique beetle species. The carcasses abandoned by mountain lions were not just food for beetles, but the very places beetles spent their lives, hiding from predators, seeking mates, raising young, and morphing from larvae into adult forms that dispersed in search of the next carcass to begin the cycle all over again.”
Barry, J.M., Elbroch, L.M., Aiello-Lammens, M.E. et al. Pumas as ecosystem engineers: ungulate carcasses support beetle assemblages in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Oecologia 189, 577–586 (2019).

Mountain Lions as Ecosystem Engineers,, , [Accessed April 29, 2023]

Mountain Lion Conservation,, , [Accessed April 29, 2023]

EOC 206: Mark’s Cougar Conundrum, Eyes on Conservation Podcast, [Accessed April 30, 2023]

Elbroch, Mark, The Cougar Conundrum, Sharing the World with a Successful Predator,, Island Press, August 2020, [Accessed April 30, 2023]

Panthera USA, [Accessed April 30, 2023]
Mark Elbroch, Ph.D., Panthera USA, [Accessed April 30, 2023], [Accessed April 29, 2023]

Wiggins, D. (2005, March 25). Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus): a technical conservation assessment.
[Online]. USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Region. Available: [Apr 30, 2023].

Yellow-billed Cuckoo Coccyzus americanus, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cornell University,

May 13 & October 14, World Migratory Bird Day 2023, WATER, UNEP/CMS Secretariat and UNEP/AEWA Secretariat,

Cougars in Utah

Cougars in Utah: FemaleF43, Butterfield Canyon, 2009 Courtesy and Copyright David Stoner
Female F43, Butterfield Canyon, 2009
Courtesy and Copyright David Stoner
Cougars are more widely distributed in Utah than many residents realize. These shy cats are found across the state. They roam from the high Uinta Mountains to the dry southern deserts.

David Stoner, assistant professor in the Department of Wildland Resources in the Quinney College of Natural Resources who has studied cougars for the past two decades said, “[Cougars] are common in terms of their distribution, but are rare in terms of their numbers. They live in many places but there are never a lot of them, typically occurring at densities of 1 adult per 20 square miles.

Stoner continues, “They’re just a big cat. Most of us are familiar with a house cats, and know how they behave, their movements, and idiosyncrasies. The main difference is their size. Cougars can be as large as humans [males usually range between 110 to 180 lbs.] They have evolved to take prey larger than themselves. You see this in the size of their muzzle – the mouth, nose and jaw. All of that is much larger in a cougar relative to its own body than a house cat. This becomes even more dramatic in the really big cats like tigers and lions with very large muzzles.

Stoner partnered with Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) to study cougars in two Utah areas, one of which was Monroe Mountain in Fishlake National Forest.

Mother named F61 (face showing), daughter (F58c) (facing away) Approx 1.5 yrs old in January 2011. Location: Kennecott mine, Bingham Canyon in the Oquirrh Mountains, Utah Courtesy and Copyright McLain Mecham, Photographer
Mother named F61 (face showing), daughter (F58c) (facing away) Approx 1.5 yrs old in January 2011. Location: Kennecott mine, Bingham Canyon in the Oquirrh Mountains, Utah
Courtesy and Copyright McLain Mecham, Photographer
The researchers noticed an unusual movement pattern of juveniles on the mountain. When the young were ready to leave their mothers they could have migrated in any direction to find good habitat but they disproportionately chose to go either NE or SE. This perplexed the researchers.

At about the same time the cougar research was winding down, DWR was starting a mule deer monitoring program.

Stoner said, “We were very fortunate. What DWR found was the Monroe Mountain deer herd were mostly migrating NE and SE. I looked back at our data and found the cougars who were leaving Monroe were going in the same direction as the deer migrations, the young cougars were tracking the deer herds.

Due to their hunting methods and nutritional needs, cougars require large home ranges. Researchers gathered data from NV, UT and AZ to represent a wide range of environmental conditions from very dry systems close to Las Vegas to relatively wet systems along Wasatch front.

Stoner explains, “We found the size of the home ranges…varied with precipitation. The wettest areas the cougars had the smallest home ranges, because of the abundance of prey in these highly productive systems. Females tend to have ranges strictly based on the food they need. The male’s range is much larger because they are looking for breeding opportunities, so they overlap numerous females. These ranges can be quite large. One collared male had a home range of over 2,500 square miles, which was visible on maps at the scale of the entire western United States.”

When it comes to human interactions with cougars, Utah has been very fortunate. In the past 100 years, no humans have been killed by a cougar. In hopes of maintaining this record, DWR keeps safety tips on its website. The most important tip is to never run from a cougar, this will cause them to instinctively think you are prey and begin the chase. If you have a child with you pick them up. Stand firm and look intimidating, let it know you’ll fight back. Your goal is to scare them off.

With the wise actions of humans, Stoner and DWR hope this majestic cat will continue to flourish in Utah.

This is Shauna Leavitt and I’m Wild About Utah.

Photos: Courtesy & Copyright © David Stoner
Audio: Courtesy
Principal Investigator: David Stoner,
Text: Shauna Leavitt, Utah Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University

Sources & Additional Reading

Greene, Jack, My Cougar Encounter, Wild About Utah, January 16, 2017,

Strand, Holly, Mountain Lion, Wild About Utah, March 4, 2010,

Boling, Josh, Wild Cats, Wild About Utah, December 10, 2018,

Löe J. and E. Röskaft. 2004. Large Carnivores and Human Safety: A Review. AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment Aug 2004 : Vol. 33, Issue 6, pg(s) 283-288

Larese-Casanova, Mark, Mountain Wildlife Field Book, Utah Master Naturalists,

Mountain Lion

Mountain Lion
Courtesy USDA

Hi, I’m Holly Strand from Stokes Nature Center in beautiful Logan Canyon.

One cold dawn in January I glanced out the kitchen window at the snow-covered yard. Something moved and my eyes focused on a large dog-sized animal half hidden and crouched behind some rabbit brush. Funny I thought. I’ve never seen a large dog like that in this neighborhood. I continued to watch the backyard visitor but it was very still and hard to see. I raced upstairs to get a better view from the second floor window. As I reached the window I got a brief glimpse of the animal as it melted away into a large ravine. It was definitely not a dog. Dogs don’t “melt” as a method of locomotion.

Courtesy US FWS Digital Library

Given the size, the color, the time of day, and the way it moved, I’m pretty sure that I saw a mountain lion. In winter our yard is a mountain lion pantry, plentifully stocked with live mule deer steaks browsing on our trees. Undoubtedly that’s what attracted my morning visitor.

The mountain lion, or cougar as it is often called, was once the most widely distributed mammal in the Americas. Nowadays, In the United States, it is now mainly restricted to remote areas in the western part of the country including in Utah. According to the Division of Wildlife Resources, the only place in Utah they’re not found is in the salt flats west of the Great Salt Lake.

Photographer: Larry Moats
Courtesy US FWS Digital Library

Although they are found everywhere in the state, the animals are rarely seen. They are extremely secretive and largely nocturnal. They usually know where you are before you know where they are, so they can easily avoid human contact .

Mountain lion attacks are extremely rare and there have been no deaths from them in Utah. Nevertheless, they can kill people and with wildlife-human confrontations on the increase it’s good to know what to do if you meet one of these big kitties. First of all, don’t run from or turn your back to a mountain lion. Its instinct is to chase running animals. Make yourself look as big as possible by raising your arms up high. Speak loudly and fight back if attacked. If you live near mountains or rocky cliff areas keep a close eye on children and pets especially at dusk and dawn.

Photographer: Claire Dobert
Courtesy US FWS Digital Library

Thanks to the Rocky Mountain Power Foundation for supporting the development of this Wild About Utah program.

For Wild About Utah and Stokes Nature Center, I’m Holly Strand.

Images: Courtesy USDA and US FWS Digital Library

Text:     Holly Strand, Stokes Nature Center

Sources & Additional Reading:

Mountain Lion, Wildlife Notebook, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources,

Starving Cougar Attacks Vernal Man, Hans Moran, Deseret News Nov. 12, 1997,

Mountain Lion, National Geographic,