The last softball game of the night had just finished playing at the city complex on the banks of the Colorado River. Lights on the eleven fields were going out one by one as chairs and ice chests were packed up into cars. In the soft glow of the headlights a slender creature raced up a tree just fast enough to catch the eye.
I immediately stopped what I was doing to look up into the branches of the medium sized live oak. I was agog. "That's a RINGTAIL!" I remember saying, when my friend Rachelle insisted it was simply a raccoon.
I'd never seen a ringtail in the wild before that night, and despite living directly on a greenbelt for the past two decades, I've never seen once since. In fact, the only reason I knew what I was looking at was from having seen ringtails being rehabbed at nature centers. But it was hard to mistake what I was looking at in that tree.
Ringtails are distinct from raccoons when you take more than a casual glance. While they are related to raccoons (as are coatis and kinkajous) and have a striped tail, the similarities really end there. They weigh a scant couple of pounds, three at most, whereas even a small adult raccoon weighs in at a hefty 10 pounds. Their bodies are long and gracile, more akin to a ferret or small fox than the ponderous shape of a raccoon. In contrast to the rather squat tail of the raccoon, the ringtail's tail is long, about the same length as their body, and provide balance when climbing.
And their faces are adorable. Large, oversized ears and eyes lend them the appearance of a child's toy. But don't let that cute face fool you. Ringtails are active carnivores when necessary, taking birds, smaller mammals, reptiles and insects, although fruit and berries also make up a large portion of its diet. The large eyes and ears are necessary for the ringtail to be effective hunters and foragers in the dark of night.
Although seeing a ringtail seems something of a novelty, they aren't particularly rare. Ringtails are found throughout Texas — although most commonly in areas with rocky habitat that accommodate their ability to climb and preference for setting up dens in crevasses in the rock face. But given their solitary nature, and primarily nocturnal habits, most people are simply never in the right place at the right time to see one. I consider myself lucky to have been.