Wildlife in Cades Cove
In addition to seeing historic sites on the Cades Cove Loop Auto Tour, viewing wildlife is one of the top reasons to visit Cades Cove. Smoky Mountain visitors hiking or sightseeing in Cades Cove should always maintain a safe distance from any animal, and officials prohibit crowding, harassing or feeding wildlife in any part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
American Black Bears
A visit to Cades Cove may present the best chance to see a black bear in the Smokies. Bears are most commonly seen from spring through fall, as they semi-hibernate in winter. They are most visible during the morning and evening hours while foraging for food. Fruit trees, acorn-laden oaks, teeming streams and ripe berry patches tend to be favorite feeding places for these majestic creatures.
Though not as large or dangerous as a grizzly, black bears in Cades Cove should always be viewed from a respectful distance. Most bears avoid human contact, and people should never approach a bear. Despite their cuddly appearance, black bears are extremely unpredictable, especially if accustomed to humans as they can be in Cades Cove.
BLACK BEAR SAFETY
It is important to remember that despite their cuddly appearance, Smoky Mountain Black Bears are extremely unpredictable, especially when accustomed to humans, as are the bears in Cades Cove. Attacks on humans in the Smokies are relatively rare, and of the rare instances that have occurred, most could have been avoided if the bear had not been attracted by food.
Never store food in your tent. Never store food in a sleeping bag, even briefly. Food should be kept in a hardtop car or hung in trees according to regulations set by the National Park. Black bears in the Smokies have a keen sense of smell, and even sweet-smelling toiletries such as toothpaste attracts them.
If you see a bear while in the campground, try to discourage it from entering the camping area by banging pots together, shouting, waving your arms and generally trying to scare them away. If this does not work, retreat to the safety of your car or camper—do not try to hide in a tent—and report the incident to Park officials.
As you leave the Cades Cove Campground, you must leave no trace of food or litter that could attract bears. Do not bury or try to burn your food or litter. If you packed something into the Cades Cove Campground, you must pack it out when you leave.
Note that it is illegal to crowd or feed bears in Cades Cove or any other part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For the safety of both visitors and bears, the Park enforces penalties for bear infractions of up to $5,000 or 6 months in jail.
Once a common sight in Cades Cove, beavers were all but eliminated from the National Park in the early 1900s. When hats made of natural beaver fur became popular at the beginning of the twentieth century, beaver populations were threatened throughout the United States, including those in the Smoky Mountains. Today, beavers are making a comeback in Cades Cove as they migrate from an area in North Carolina where they have been reintroduced.
Weighing up to 60 pounds, beavers are the largest rodent in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A beaver can grow up to four feet long, including its distinctive flat tail. The tail is black and hairless, while the rest of the beaver's body is covered with waterproof brown fur. Beavers have fairly short legs with clawed feet that are partially webbed in front and fully webbed in the rear. They prefer slow, wide waters near trees where they can build their trademark dams.
Beavers are natural engineers, cutting down trees with their sizeable teeth and using the timber to dam up streams and construct lodges. They slap their flat leathery tails on the water's surface to warn the colony of danger. When the alarm is sounded, members of the beaver colony head for the safety of the lodges or tunnels dug into the stream bank.
Tree bark is the beaver's primary food source. Their large, highly specialized incisor teeth are flat, chisel shaped, and constantly growing. Because their teeth are always growing, beavers must chew wood to keep them from getting too long.
More than 200 bird species live in the varied habitats of Cades Cove. Summer birds include yellow warblers, indigo buntings, eastern kingbirds and barn swallows. Golden eagles visit Cades Cove in autumn. Other birds seen in Cades Cove include night-flying barred owls, pileated woodpeckers, red-winged blackbirds and meadowlarks. Sparrows, bluebirds, red-tailed hawks, wild turkeys, crows and mourning doves may be spotted as well.
Bobcats live in Cades Cove, though they are rarely seen here or elsewhere in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Weighing 18 to 20 pounds and about three feet in length, these nocturnal predators prey on white-tailed deer fawns and other small game.
The eastern chipmunk belongs to the same family as squirrels and woodchucks. Chipmunks are considered ground squirrels as opposed to their tree-loving cousins, the common gray squirrel. Quick and feisty, these small mammals are 5 to 7 inches long with a short, perky tail. Their reddish-brown fur sports two black stripes and two white stripes down each side of its body, while the underbelly is light tan. Chipmunks are most easily spotted on vertical surfaces such as a rock face, fallen log or stone fence, as their fur blends well into fallen leaves and underbrush on the ground.
Though not a true hibernator, a chipmunk spends much of the winter buried deep within its burrow in a bed lined with feathers, moss and other cozy materials, far from predators like bobcats, coyotes, hawks and snakes. Other burrow chambers house its winter food stores. An avid lover of acorns and other tree nuts, chipmunks in Cades Cove feast on small seeds and fruits, as well as slugs, insects and even bird nestlings or eggs if they can find them.
Timid and fleeting, cottontail rabbits in the Cove are most likely to be sighted in tall grass along the shoulders of the Cades Cove Loop. The Eastern cottontail rabbit has brown and grayish fur, characteristically long ears and powerful hindquarters. Their trademark cotton-like tail is perhaps their most commonly seen side as the wild rabbits bound away from curious onlookers.
Coyotes migrating from west of the Mississippi River in the 1980s, arriving in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park around 1985. The coyotes in Cades Cove are natural predators that help control the small animal population. Pouncing on their prey, they hold it with their front paws before making the kill with their teeth.
Coyotes have a dog-like appearance but with noticeably smaller feet, thinner legs and a bushier tail. They are about two feet tall and four feet long, including their tail. A coyote's facial features are distinctive, having pointy ears, round inquisitive eyes and an overall appearance that looks a bit like a German Shepherd.
Due to their nocturnal nature, minks in Cades Cove are rarely seen by day guests. Whether seen or not, biologists agree that there is a healthy population of minks in the Cove. Renowned for their exceptionally beautiful dark brown fur, minks pair off during mating season, with females giving birth to litters as large as 10. A female mink may give birth to as many as 75 young or more over the course of her lifetime, which can span up to 10 years.
The mink is a semi-aquatic animal that makes its home in burrows along stream and river banks. Mink burrows generally have several openings to allow them to appear unexpectedly close to prey, though they may leave the burrow for extended periods of time to hunt elsewhere. Like their cousins the river otters, minks are carnivores. Quite agile at catching fish, crayfish and frogs, they are also effective at hunting birds, chipmunks, field mice and other small animals.
Though rumors persist, mountain lions in Cades Cove are mere speculation today. Before the 1920s, mountain lions ranged across the whole Appalachian area, but hunters depleted the entire cougar population prior to the formation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The mountain lion that once made its home in Cades Cove was the eastern cougar. The eastern cougar was one of two species of felines in the National Park, the other being the bobcat, which still exists within the Park's boundaries.
Raccoons are furry gray mammals with distinctive black masks and ringed tails. Those masks, combined with their nocturnal habits and inquisitive natures, have earned raccoons a reputation as backyard bandits. But, it's their dexterous forepaws that allow these resourceful creatures to forage so successfully, even manipulating doorknobs, jars or latches to get at a meal.
Wild raccoons living in Cades Cove are opportunistic eaters, enjoying an omnivorous diet that ranges from mice, baby rabbits and fish to eggs, fruit and nuts. They use their finger-like digits to overturn rocks in streams or at the edge of the water, looking for insects, salamanders or crayfish. Raccoons are equally opportunistic with their shelter, building dens in hollow trees, dense stands of cattails, abandoned buildings or dens left behind by other animals.
Though plentiful in the Smokies, raccoons are rarely seen by visitors in Cades Cove. These nocturnal creatures are active after dark when the Loop Road is closed. However, guests who lodge in Smoky Mountain cabins and chalets near the Cove may catch glimpses of raccoons hunting or at play once it is truly dark. Raccoons will sometimes steal from campers or beg for tidbits of food.
Red and Gray Foxes
Thanks to its mix of forest and open fields, Cades Cove is home to more red and gray foxes than just about anywhere else in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The fields offer fertile hunting grounds for the foxes to prey on small animals such as mice and rabbits, especially in winter. These highly adaptable omnivores add insects and frogs to their summer diet, then dine on acorns, berries and fruit in fall. The forest provides protection for the foxes from predators like coyotes.
Red foxes have red fur, black legs and a white-tipped tail. Not only are reds more beautiful than their gray fox cousins, they're also more aggressive. Gray foxes are more common than reds in Cades Cove, but they're not as easy to spot, because their gray coats blend so well with the background.
Slender and graceful with auburn-tinged fur on their heads, red foxes in the Smoky Mountains were on the verge of extinction as recently as the early 1980's. These elusive creatures shy away from humans, making red wolf sightings rare in Cades Cove.
So abundant were otters in Cades Cove, the Cherokee called this place Tsiyahi, or "Place of the River Otter." River otters belong to the same family as weasels and skunks, but unlike their land-loving cousins, otters spend a good deal of their time in the water. These cute, playful creatures have a face that vaguely resembles a seal, with small eyes, ears and lots of whiskers.
Ironically, the warm, water-repellent fur that protects river otters from cold mountain streams is the same luxurious pelt coveted by fur trappers. In fact, otters were all but eliminated from the Great Smoky Mountain National Park by hunters in the 1920's. Thankfully, National Park officials reintroduced 140 of the semi-aquatic mammals in the 1980's, and otters in Cades Cove are well established once again, especially in Abrams Creek and Little River.
Sightings of river otters in Cades Cove can be difficult, as these nocturnal animals come out at night to hunt fish, crayfish, frogs and turtles. Webbed toes and strong flexible tails help the otter swim, while whiskers allow the otters to detect the movement of prey underwater.
With their bushy tails, petite legs, and silky black and white fur, both striped and spotted skunks are common in Cades Cove. Despite their cute appearance, their defense mechanism is formidable. If surprised or threatened, skunks can spray an unpleasant scent up to 15 feet. These odiferous omnivores hold their tails upright when preparing to spray, and the eastern spotted skunk sometimes does a handstand with its rear aimed at its victim.
Distemper has caused a drop in the skunk population throughout the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but conditions are ripe for a comeback. Skunks sometimes cross the Cades Cove Loop Road with a litter of skunk kittens trailing behind, so motorists should beware when driving in order to help preserve the National Park's skunk population.
Most snake species in Cades Cove are not venomous. The non- venomous varieties found in the Cove include garter, black rat and water snakes. Garter snakes can be seen sunning themselves on rocks, while black rat snakes prefer trees. True to their name, water snakes can be around water and like to fish. Occasionally water snakes are mistaken for cottonmouths.
The two species of venomous snakes that do live in Cades Cove are the timber rattler and the northern copperhead. However, officials report that few snake bites occur in the Park. Nevertheless, visitors are warned to be cautious in abandoned buildings and around old stone fences, as both are favorite hangouts for snakes. Visitors also should stay in well-traveled areas of Cades Cove, such as along established hiking trails, and keep in mind that snakes—venomous or not—are protected by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Service.
Plentiful food supplies and an abundance of nest-making materials make the forests of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park a haven for squirrels. Four species of arboreal squirrels are commonly found in Cades Cove: gray squirrels, red squirrels, fox squirrels and flying squirrels.
The most commonly seen variety of squirrels in Cades Cove is the gray squirrel, which tends to be most active a couple hours after sunrise and again in late afternoon. A dark gray undercoat with a light gray topcoat gives them a fuzzy, grizzled look. Its underbelly is white, and bushy gray fur makes the tail appear as large as the squirrel itself.
Completely at home in the canopy, gray squirrels are often seen jumping with great dexterity from the tip of one tree to the tip of another. These arboreal squirrels live in nests called dreys high above the forest floor. Baby gray squirrels are born in the dreys, which are built of twigs and leaves, and lined with moss, bark, feathers and other soft natural materials. A gray squirrel typically lives 5 to 7 years, with females producing two small litters annually, once in the spring and again in winter. Gray squirrels have small summer platform dreys and much larger winter dreys, which are waterproof and highly visible. They also live in tree dens.
Individual gray squirrels are non-territorial, and their large home ranges overlap with those of other squirrels. Population densities can be quite high in stands of trees where sufficient food is available. Though the gray squirrels of Cades Cove eat a wide variety of herbs on the forest floor, the presence of acorns, hickory or walnuts will assure a high squirrel population anywhere in the Smoky Mountains.
Red Squirrels and Fox Squirrels
Other varieties of squirrels in Cades Cove include the red squirrel and fox squirrel. Though sometimes mistaken for gray squirrels, fox squirrels boast a reddish-orange tail and are about 15% to 20% larger than grays. In fact, fox squirrels are the largest of the squirrel species that inhabit Cades Cove.
With their red coats and tufted ears, red squirrels are a bit easier to distinguish from their fellows. Aside from their differing appearance, the red squirrel's diet also sets them apart. In addition to seeds, fruits and pine nuts, red squirrels eat insects and bird eggs. They also chew through the bark of maple trees in order to drink the tree sap inside.
The Southern flying squirrel is one of the more interesting small animals found in Cades Cove. Though they don't actually fly, they can glide 50 yards or more by spreading membranes of skin that connect the wrists of the squirrel's front paws to the ankles of its hind legs. The flying squirrel will leap from a tree, stretching out all four legs to catch the air with those membranes. The squirrel can glide to its desired destination with great accuracy, maneuvering around branches and other obstacles. A small body size aids the squirrel's flight, and its tail serves to guide the animal, much like a rudder.
The body fur of this Cades Cove resident is soft and grey or brownish in color, with a whitish underbelly. Large, round eyes help the nocturnal flying squirrel see at night, and its ears are a bit larger than most squirrels. The larger Northern flying squirrel is also found in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
White-tailed deer are the undisputed stars of Cades Cove. In all of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there is no better place to view white-tailed deer than in Cades Cove. Smokies visitors commonly see 200 deer in the Cove at sunrise. Though timid, the deer have learned to tolerate motorists stopping along to the Cades Cove Loop to watch them browse. Often the deer are only 10 to 20 yard away.
Depending on conditions, the deer population in and around Cades Cove has reached as high as a thousand. Sadly, such large numbers have a negative effect on the Cove's ecosystem. For instance, oak tree sprouts are a deer delicacy. High numbers of deer prevent the sprouts from becoming saplings which would grow into the great oak trees that provide acorns essential to the survival of many Cove species. This over-browsing is harmful to the deer themselves, making them more susceptible to disease and increasing the risk of starvation as acorns are an important part of the deer's diet. When the deer's typical food becomes scarce in the Cove, they rely on less nutritious foods such as rhododendron.
To counteract deer over-browsing by natural means, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park service introduced coyotes and red wolves into Cades Cove in the 1980s and '90s. The red wolves had to be relocated, but coyotes remain to this day. American black bears in the Smokies have always preyed upon fawns and therefore help to maintain the delicate balance of nature found in Cades Cove.
In the late summer and early fall, visitors to Cades Cove can see bucks with full antlers. The antlers fall off after mating season, usually in mid-winter, and then begin to grow again in spring. By August and September, the antlers are ready implements of battle for competing for mating rights to Cades Cove does. Except for a doe's first birthing season, fawns are usually born in twos. The fawns are able to walk at birth and can be weaned in six weeks. The average life cycle of the deer in Cades Cove is approximately 10 years.
European wild boars were introduced into the Smoky Mountains and Cades Cove area in the early 1900s when boars brought as game animals escaped their enclosure. Sows are capable of birthing 12 piglets each breeding cycle, so boars spread quickly throughout the Appalachians. Because this non-native species competes with the native species for food and territory, National Park officials try to limit the boar population. The efforts have met with limited success, however, and with a population of approximately 500 in the Park today, wild boars seem entrenched in the Smokies' ecosystem.
Woodchucks, also known as groundhogs or whistle-pigs, are the largest rodents in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They are often seen by motorists standing upright on their short legs in the mowed grass along the side of the road.
Measuring two feet long, covered in gray or grizzled brown fur, weighing approximately 10 pounds and armed with sharp front claws, woodchucks are expert diggers. They live in tunnels to avoid predators such as bobcats and coyotes, both of which prey upon woodchucks in Cades Cove. A woodchuck, which is actually a type of ground squirrel, can dig a burrow most anywhere, from open fields to mountainous forested land. They use burrows for sleeping, rearing young—one litter of two to six cubs per year—and hibernating in winter.
Farmers in Cades Cove considered woodchucks pests, as they ate the farmers' crops, and farm animals could be injured if they stepped into a groundhog's burrow hole. Groundhogs are so industrious at digging, burrows as deep as 20 feet have been discovered in the Park, and their abandoned burrows are used as dens by other animals, like Cades Cove foxes and weasels.