Bobcats Widespread in United States

Bobcats keep mystery alive with elusive nature.
Marc Murrell
July/August 2009
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Bobcat in native grass.
Bob Gress

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By If you ask people from around the country about the status of wildcats, some would mention the mountain lion or cougar because they’re common in the West. Others would have something to say about the lynx. But the cat that may very well generate the most interest is the bobcat. According to National Geographic, this species is the most abundant of any wildcat in the United States and has the greatest range among all native North American cats. Most people who live in states with excellent populations of these medium-sized cats rarely catch a glimpse of the secretive feline. It’s the mystique and mystery of these unique predators that creates a sense of awe when a fortunate visual encounter is experienced.

Bobcats are found throughout Southern Canada, the northern half of Mexico, and most of the United States. Many population distribution maps show an absence of habitation throughout parts of the Corn Belt and into the northeast. However, a couple of biologists in this area agree that most such maps are out of date. Bob Bluett, wildlife biologist for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, says they’ve documented the existence of bobcats in all but three counties in Illinois, and populations in Missouri, Iowa and Indiana have all increased in the last 10 to 20 years. One area that bobcats are reluctant to live in is that with extensive row-to-row agriculture.

Scott Johnson, nongame wildlife biologist in Indiana, agrees with Bluett about bobcat habitation and says bobcats are “ubiquitous as far as major habitat, they’re not too picky.” The places they don’t tolerate, in his experience, are row-to-row agriculture, monoculture farming – usually corn and soybeans – and extremely urban areas.

Bobcats inhabit heavily forested areas with dense underbrush, rocky outcrops and bluffs. Old fields, clearcuts and caves are critical bobcat habitat as well. In the West, the bobcat inhabits arid and rocky terrain. Throughout much of the year, they dwell in a rest shelter such as a thicket, standing or downed hollow tree, or a recess in a rocky outcropping.

Spots and tracks

An adult male bobcat may weigh up to 40 pounds, although they likely average about 20 pounds. Females are slightly smaller than males, and each is 18 to 24 inches tall at the shoulder. Both sexes are similar in appearance, although each may lose many of their black spots or streaks with age. Bobcats are reddish brown or gray, white underneath and spotted with black. The ears are short, black with a white spot or band on the back, and usually tipped with small tufts of hair. Their face is round and obviously cat-like, and they possess a short tail trimmed with black. Bobcats may live up to 10 years in the wild.

The front track of a bobcat can be distinguished from other mammals in several ways. Their tracks are relatively small – 1 to 3 inches long and wide – and are shorter and wider overall than a coyote track. Because bobcats have retractable claws, claw marks are generally not present in any cat track, while coyote or dog tracks will usually have visible claw marks.

The bobcat’s breeding season can run from January until August or even later, depending on location and climate. Most of the activity takes place from February to May, and females may mate twice during the year and begin breeding at one year of age. The gestation period is about 63 days, at which point one to seven babies are born, although a typical litter averages only two or three. The young, born with their eyes closed, are about 10 inches long and weigh less than a pound. Their eyes open in about 10 days, and the mother typically brings them food until they’re weaned in about two months. Young bobcats stay with the female until fall or even later and may remain together once they leave their mother.

Stealthy hunters

Bobcats utilize stealth, excellent hearing and padded feet to capture prey, typically at dawn and dusk. They may stalk and pounce on their prey, or crouch on a game trail or tree limb and await an unwary victim. Food intake is dependent upon prey availability and seasonal changes. The majority of their diet consists of small mammals in the form of rabbits, cotton rats, mice, shrews, squirrels, opossums and domestic cats. They will also eat small birds, quail and turkeys. Bobcats have been known to kill fawn or even adult deer on occasion. Bobcats gorge when food is plentiful and may not feed again for several days. They seldom return to eat from an old kill unless food is scarce. They waste considerable meat and may kill more than they can eat. They often bury surplus food under snow, grass, leaves or sticks. In lean times they will eat carrion as well.

These loners need space

A bobcat’s search for food or mates may take it many miles within its territory. Typically, most bobcats have a core area of about 5 square miles but the entire territory may be up to 50 square miles for a male and about half that for a female. Females tend to have almost exclusive home ranges, but males have ranges that overlap those of other males and females. The cats move more in winter and spring than summer and fall, with the most restricted range seen in the hot months of July and August. There is little social interaction between individuals. This lack of contact is achieved by marking their home range with scent posts containing fecal matter and urine. These scent posts serve to prevent encounters of resident individuals and put transient bobcats on notice that the range is occupied.

While on a typical hunt, bobcats are curious and investigate anything that catches their eye that doesn’t pose a threat. This leads to a zigzag trail that meanders as they walk or trot. When the need arises, they can even leap up to 10 feet in a single bound.

Bobcats spend much of the day in a hollow log or cat-napping in dense brush. They are capable of scaling the tallest of trees and are adept swimmers, crossing creeks or rivers with ease. They even stretch and sharpen their claws on dead or decaying wood much like some domestic cats do on favorite furniture.

Although bobcats are extremely secretive, shy and retiring, they do make noise, particularly during the breeding season. And if you’ve ever heard these sounds, you likely won’t soon forget them. The shrill shrieks are much like a person screaming, or an extremely hungry infant voicing its displeasure at the lack of food. Other vocalizations imitate typical sounds heard from a house cat on the prowl, except on a much louder and more intense scale. Squalling, howling, meowing and yowls are all part of their communication repertoire. If cornered or threatened, they will growl, hiss and spit.

Predator face-off

Bobcats have few natural predators. On occasion, young bobcats are killed by foxes, coyotes, wild dogs and great-horned owls. Their biggest predator is man. Many states have a regulated hunting and trapping season on these furbearers, a unique, renewable natural resource. In the mid-1990s, trappers annually harvested roughly 25,000 bobcats nationwide resulting in about $2.5 million in fur sales. Since that time, bobcat pelt prices have remained fairly steady, although at a lower level due to fluctuating fur market demand. On average, bobcat pelts from the West are more valuable than those in the Midwest and East.

The majority of individuals will never have the good fortune to see a bobcat in its natural setting despite healthy populations in many Great Plains states. The increase in populations in these states may be attributed to a number of factors. A combination of increased habitat and resulting prey species with the advent of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) may be at least partially responsible. Mild winters frequenting many states over the last decade may also play a role in the increased survival rates of young bobcats.

Bobcats are important predators, and they truly are a rich addition to the fauna of the outdoor world. They are extremely elusive and even veteran outdoorsmen only catch an occasional glimpse, as bobcats typically bolt at the first sight, smell or sound of man, dogs or other danger. But despite their secretiveness, it’s nice to know that these elusive cats still roam the wilds of our country.

Marc Murrell is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer from Newton, Kansas. Some of his most memorable stories and photographs include outdoor experiences shared while hunting, trapping, fishing and camping with his wife and three children.

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7/6/2009 10:57:46 PM
Not so nice to know if you have domestic cats or a small flock of free-ranged Chickens in the woods of North-eastern Oklahoma. That is surely a good description of the Bobcat's cry, though. That was the last thing we heard before our big white cat went missing.

7/6/2009 2:39:06 PM
"Elusive" and "secretive" are flat-out myths, as I learned last year when two adult bobcats, female followed by male, strolled across my newly acquired rural property in broad daylight not 50 feet from where I was sitting on my back steps. About 20 minutes later, a smaller, immature individual appeared out of the cornfields across the road from my house, sat down and looked at me for a while and ducked back under cover. Knowing that bobcats were "elusive" and "secretive" and "rarely seen," i was very excited. I told everyone I knew in the area. They all smiled, yawned a bit and patted me on the head. They knew all about the bobcats whose territory I live in. They see them all the time. They know the big, robust male is a recent arrival, having taken over the den and territory and access to females a long-time, aging and presumably now dead resident male used to hold. One of my neighbors, not a fantasist and knowledgeable about wildlife, has had this big male wander up his driveway on more than one occasion and settle down under his truck to wait for an unwary housecat or rabbit. In broad daylight, nowhere near dusk or dawn. Another friend regularly, like once or twice a week, sees one of the bobcats crossing at around the same time the country road he he drives down early every morning to go to work. It may well be that naturalists don't see them often, but those of us who live in the middle of their territory sure do.

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