Why spotting a 'forest kitten' can be challenging but fascinating

Have you ever spotted a "forest kitten," the seldom-seen but adorable pine marten that hides in Alberta's forests? Naturalist Brian Keating says he saw the small animal in February near Lake Louise — prompting him to tell The Homestretch what makes the animal so remarkable.

Naturalist Brian Keating says these creatures can be found in snowy Alberta as well as California

Watch a mama pine marten or 'forest kitten' move her youngsters

1 year ago
Duration 0:29
Naturalist Brian Keating took this video in 2004 of a pine marten picking up her babies to move them from one location to another. (Video: Great Big Nature)

Have you ever spotted a "forest kitten," the seldom-seen but adorable creature that hides in Alberta's forests?

Well, naturalist Brian Keating says he saw the small animal in February near Lake Louise — prompting him to tell The Homestretch what makes the animal so remarkable.

  • Check out the above video of a pine marten carrying her babies with her mouth, taken by  Brian Keating through his production company, Great Big Nature.

First, despite the animal being referred to and looking like a forest kitten, it's actually called a pine marten.

"The pine marten, or American marten, is a member of the mustelidae family, which includes wolverines, weasels, mink, badgers and otters," he said.

Naturalist Brian Keating told CBC's The Homestretch about spotting a pine marten near Lake Louise and just how interesting these small carnivores are. (David Gray)

Keating says it's rare to run into the animal, and if you do, it will disappear quickly into the forest and be difficult to spot again.

"But the one that we saw … was really quite unconcerned about us. He knew we were there because he kept looking back at us several times," he said.

Keating and his wife were out cross-country skiing on Pipestone Trail loop near Lake Louise that day when they noticed the small carnivore on the trail.

"I'm sure that he was using our packed cross-country ski trail as a runway for easy movement."

Some pine marten facts

Pine martens can handle some extreme weather conditions and are found all the way north into Alaska as well as south into California.

Keating says the animals are long and slender but have a body similar to a mink or ferret.

"The male is just under one and a half feet long with a tail about half as long," he said, adding the females are a bit smaller.

He says they have large black eyes, and ears rounded like a cat's — hence why they're called a "forest kitten."

Keating says he spotted two pine martens this winter, but their tracks in the snow are a common sight. (David Gray)

The critter also has sharp, curved, semi-retractable claws, which Keating says helps them climb up into the trees.

Despite their small stature, they can get pretty aggressive, he notes.

"They can take an animal down as big as a snowshoe hare and even a marmot," he said.

Pine martens usually eat small rodents, like squirrels, but Keating says it'll take anything it can get — making them "opportunistic feeders."

"Birds and even fruit and nuts and insects. And if they find something dead, they'll feed on that," he said.

It will also take down prey that's either too big for the common weasel to snack on or too small for wolverines to bother with.

"They fill that mid-sized hunting niche perfectly," he said.

"And with their thin body, they can go through the snow and under the snow and pursue some of the creatures in their own tunnels."

Pine martens require only about 80 calories a day while at rest, which comes in handy during Alberta's cold snaps.

"They somehow managed to make a living in a landscape that really seems sparse of food resources," he said.

Here is an example of pine marten tracks in the snow. (Dee Keating)

"They're able to take down a variety of prey, which allows them to survive in ridiculous conditions that can have very cold temperatures for five months or more a year."

It's unlikely you'll see a group of the pine martens together, as the males can can be pretty territorial. 

"They'll defend a territory up to about eight square kilometres in size, depending upon the quality of the habitat," he said.

"Females will range around in a territory about one-third of that size."

And in terms of breeding, Keating says that doesn't happen until July or August.

"Apparently the female is sexually receptive for about 15 days … but like bears, they have what's known as delayed implantation."

This means that once the egg is fertilized, it will sit in suspended animation and the pine marten won't give birth until the following March or April.

"So basically, they're all ready to start to allow that baby to form. But they somehow have figured out a way to put it into a state of suspended animation until the right time comes."

If you're ever lucky enough come across a mama pine marten with her babies, it's a fascinating scene, Keating says.

"One spring, I was camping in a random forest in the Rocky Mountains with my wife.… I was brushing my teeth when a pine marten appeared with a baby in her jaw," he said. 

"She moved three youngsters from one den location to the other, and I was able to sit quietly in the forest and watch this whole sequence of events."

  • LISTEN BELOW | Brian Keating talks to The Homestretch about some other pine marten facts:

For more fascinating stories about Alberta's wildlife from naturalist Brian Keating, visit his website and check out these stories:

With files from The Homestretch.


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