Bobcats, bears, and moose, oh my
Around dusk, many of us can look out our windows and see deer making their way through our yards. So it might come as a surprise to learn that throughout the 1800s there were only an estimated 20 deer in the entire state of Connecticut. Just 20 deer. Why so few? Because 75 percent of the state was cleared, treeless farmland, and Fairfield County was a patchwork of fields, separated by the region’s ubiquitous stone walls. Farm animals were the norm. Wild animals were not.
When industry began replacing farming in the 20th century, the trees were once again allowed to grow. Aerial photographs show that most of the tree growth prevalent today was not here in the 1930s. Trees provide food, shelter, and camouflage for animals, and with the regrowth wildlife began to reappear.
The number of deer grew rapidly. So much so that in 1979 Connecticut passed the first deer management act to control their population. Today, Fairfield County has the highest deer density in the state, at close to 60 per square mile. Hundreds of large estates and homes typically sitting on several acres, combined with over 5,000 acres of permanently preserved open space in Weston, Wilton, Georgetown, and Redding make an ideal habitat.
Primarily nocturnal, coyotes spend time at night near forested land. Hunter surveys in 2013 accounted for 5,988 coyote sightings in Connecticut. They normally shy away from people but small pets should not be left outside unattended. At 40 to 60 pounds, coyotes are not large, but because they are essentially wild dogs, their ability to fight for survival compensates for their size. They are predisposed to prey on deer, hence the great growth in the large number of coyotes.
Wild turkeys were here when our first settlers arrived, but by the early 1800s they were all but gone. Efforts to restore their numbers in the 1950s and 1960s failed, but between 1975 and 1992, 356 wild turkeys were released at 18 sites in the state which, combined with denser forests, has restored their population. Traveling with their young, they are an impressive sight. It is important to avoid feeding them or they will always return, and this will reduce their ability to survive in the wild.
In the past, bobcat sightings were rare, but today they are quite common. Hunter surveys reported 971 bobcat sightings in Connecticut in 2013. Bobcats thrive in the dense undergrowth at a forest’s edge, and prey on small animals such as mice, chipmunks and, yes, wild turkeys. Bobcats resemble a miniature cougar-tiger hybrid and weigh 20 to 40 pounds. They normally try to avoid humans, but small household pets are natural targets.
Each year over 7,000 deer are struck by cars in Connecticut, but in 2007 readers reacted with surprise when they read the newspaper headline, “Moose is struck on Merritt Parkway in New Canaan.” Moose are surprisingly prevalent in Fairfield County. In 2013 moose were sighted in Danbury, Easton, Monroe, and Fairfield, and the Connecticut DEEP Wildlife Division reported 67 sightings statewide over a six-month period that year. Moose are a member of the deer family but considerably larger, reaching heights of six feet and weighing upwards of 2,000 pounds. They have been known to travel great distances in mating season. In 2004 the Massachusetts division of Fish and Wildlife attached a radio collar to a young female at the Massachusetts/New Hampshire border. From June 5 through July 11 tracking showed that she travelled over 100 miles, to Old Lyme, where she settled in a three square mile area between Route 1 and I-95. She was soon relocated to Northern Connecticut.
In the 1840s black bears were rendered almost extinct in Connecticut and it wasn’t until the 1980s that they began to return. Hunter surveys reported 550 black bear sightings in the state in 2013, with an estimated annual increase of 15 to 20 percent. Local sightings are becoming more common. Last year a cub was perched in a tree on Danbury’s crowded Main Street and then relocated to Redding. Black bears generally avoid humans, but should you happen to come close to encountering one, make sure to back away while facing it, making noise and waving your arms. And take note: residential trashcans, bird feeders, and barbeque grills are potent attractions to the bears, so avoid leaving them outdoors.
Kris Zulkeski of Connecticut Wildlife Management specializes in relocating wild animals and says, “The numbers of black bears will continue to grow, and as new homes are built, the number of encounters will increase. The animals aren’t going anywhere.”