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Nature Notes: Bobcat

This essay comes from Ed Robinson’s new second volume in the Nature Notes series, titled Nature Notes from Maine: Puffins, Black Bears, Raccoons & More. Click here to learn more and order yours!

By Ed Robinson

It was cold in the dark October woods, thank goodness for my down jacket. As dawn crept slowly over the horizon behind me a faint glow began to light the trees. My eyes picked up movement just in front of me but not a whisper of sound. Frozen in my seat I sensed a patch of tan, a hint of black, a sneak with halting steps.

The creature moved like a cat, probably a feral tabby on the prowl. But when it stepped from behind a tree and paused, I knew this was no mere kitty. Fortunately, the wind did not betray me and soon I could make out the full profile of the cat. We were a long way from Canada lynx country, and in another minute, I was certain of the identification — bobcat!

Despite nearly 70 years and countless hours outdoors in all kinds of habitat that was my first, and still my only bobcat encounter, not counting tracks. While the light was still faint when the cat moved on, I saw enough to be impressed with its coloring and its stealth. If that cat had been stalking me, I never would have detected it. Folks who have discovered bears, coyotes or big cats sneaking up on them always admit some jangled nerves from the experience. Perhaps the encounters trigger vestigial memories from the Stone Age when predators had most of the advantages.

Photo by Betty4240, iStock

The history of North America’s large cats extends eight million years. Scientists have long debated the history and proper classification of the bobcat, with some arguing that it is simply a variant of Canada lynx, differentiated over time by living conditions. That the two cats sometimes interbreed only adds to the confusion. The current agreement is that while the two cats share ancestry from the Eurasian lynx, bobcats are a distinct species, Lynx rufus, leading to the colloquial name red lynx. Another common nickname is wildcat.

These adaptable creatures prefer woodlands but can be found in swamps, deserts or mountain regions in all the lower 48 states, with the possible exception of Delaware. It is arguable that bobcats are more successful than their lynx cousins, since the bobcat’s range extends from southern Canada to Oaxaca, Mexico and coast to coast. While the population of bobcats suffered in Midwestern states as mechanized farming decimated acceptable habitat and prey species, the animals can be found in a variety of habitats that include the fringes of urban areas. One day my son was golfing an arid course near Los Angeles and noticed a bobcat watching his swing from the rough (no word on whether that resulted in a missed shot!).

The average bobcat is smaller than a lynx of the same age. Adult males average 20-30 pounds, with unverified claims of cats up to 60 pounds. Standing nearly two feet high at the shoulder and over three feet long to the base of the six-inch tail, mature bobcats dwarf even the most over-fed housecats. The coat varies from light tan to a gray-brown with black streaks on the body and legs. The ears are pointed, with black tips and short tufts of hair (noticeably shorter than the lynx). The chin and underbody are mostly off-white. Unlike the black lynx tail, the bobcat’s tail is black on top and white below. It is easy to see the value of their coloration for camouflage when the cats are hunting in mixed cover. While the hind legs are longer than the front legs, this is not as pronounced as with the lynx.

Bobcats may be spotted in daylight hours but their movements are mostly confined to the shoulders of the day, several hours on either side of dusk and dawn. When not hunting, the cats rest in thick cover or in a tree. Bobcats rarely stay in one place for long unless caring for offspring or feeding multiple times on a large carcass. The cats generally follow defined routes around their home territories, up to several miles each day. Tracking studies of bobcats with location transmitters have shown the males’ territories average 30 square miles, often overlapping the range of several females. The cats mark their territories with urine, feces and tree scratching, leaving tracks in a line, twice the size of domestic cats.

Availability of prey varies considerably around the calendar so bobcats take their food where they can find it, using their capable eyes, ears and nose. Like so many predators of their size, the primary dietary items are small mammals and birds with rabbits and hares high on the list. Squirrels, moles, muskrats, woodchucks, reptiles and large insects are also on the menu. Mature bobcats are strong enough to kill larger animals like deer and elk calves, using their long incisors, powerful jaws and sharp claws to subdue much larger animals. The cats may find trouble when they take the opportunity to harvest chickens, sheep or pigs. It appears that bobcats generally co-exist with similar sized predators like fox and coyotes, but in periods of limited food availability a pack of coyotes probably has a competitive advantage over a solitary bobcat.

Bobcats have long been hunted and trapped for their luxurious pelts and to protect farm animals. The availability of carcasses and tagging studies allow scientists to gather a great deal of data on this species. The average life span in the wild is around seven years but one tagged cat survived to 16 years. The females are sexually mature in their second summer and capable of breeding throughout their lives. Pairs form in late summer or fall, with males pursuing the females by chasing or ambushing them. Bobcats are quiet most of the year but during breeding season they emit loud screams, yowls and hisses, particularly if more than one male is pursuing a female. The peak of breeding season occurs during mid to late winter, with both sexes sometimes taking multiple partners.

Kittens are born in late spring in a secluded cave, brush pile, hollow tree or log. Litters up to six have been recorded but it seems two to four is more common. Rarely a second litter may arrive in late summer but that is unlikely in northern climates. Blind at birth, the kittens open their eyes in a week and explore the area around the den after a month. Weaning occurs after three months and by five months the young are hunting with their mothers. As autumn rolls around some juveniles are off to find new territories while others remain with their mother through their first winter.

While kittens are susceptible to predation by large raptors or foxes, very few creatures will tackle a bobcat once it has reached adulthood. They are capable of a ferocious defense, using their powerful hind legs and sharp claws to rip at an opponent and biting with their fearsome teeth. Only animals the size of a coyote, wolf, cougar or bear would risk such an encounter, although the smaller but aggressive fisher has been documented with bobcat remains. Accidents and diseases like mange or scabies are factors in the bobcat’s lifespan, along with road accidents and starvation in periods of limited food availability.

The International Society for Endangered Cats reports that bobcat populations have been increasing since the 1990’s, partly because climate change allowed them to extend their range to the north, to the detriment of the more passive lynx. The secretive nature of the cats and the habitats they use make population estimates challenging but an analysis in 2010 estimated the North American total at approximately three million. While hunting and trapping are legal in many areas, annual exports of around 30,000 skins do not represent a threat to bobcat populations. The biggest threat to this scrappy predator over time is habitat fragmentation and loss caused by ongoing development of wild places.

October 2021