Bobcats Widespread in United States

Bobcats keep mystery alive with elusive nature.

| July/August 2009

  • Bobcat in native grass.
    Bobcat in native grass.
    Bob Gress
  • Gritty get seen by a bobcat.
    Gritty gets seen by a bobcat.
    Brad Andersen

  • Bobcat in native grass.
  • Gritty get seen by a bobcat.

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 However, a couple of biologists in this area agree that most such maps are out of date.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.

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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