Window On Nature
By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
This column is not about red robins, but bobcats “” the smallest and most abundant wild cat still roaming North America. We spotted our first bobcat during our first year of full-timing. We were birding in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, but we quickly forgot the birds when Lowell noticed a bobcat strolling our way. All three of us froze, studying each other at leisure. After several minutes, one of us “” cat or human “” moved enough to break the spell, and the cat sought cover.
Several years passed before we experienced another chance meeting “” this time while driving up California’s coastal highway. Always aware of our surroundings, Kaye (no, she wasn’t driving) spotted a bobcat loping across a bluff. Naturally, we pulled off the road to enjoy the sight. “Bobbie” wasn’t in any hurry, and neither were we.
We’ve experienced many other bobcat sightings since then, but that doesn’t mean that bobcats are as common as raccoons. During the past couple of centuries, the bobcat population has decreased considerably, but we’re fortunate that some still remain in most parts of the United States, Mexico, and southern Canada. However, you won’t find wild cats of any species in the Midwest farming areas. Sources cite pesticides and lack of cover as the main reasons the animals have disappeared from this region. Elsewhere, they still live in diverse habitats such as pine, sequoia, and mangrove forests; rugged canyons; Florida swamps; and all four of the American Southwest deserts (just as long as a reliable water supply is available).
One year we wintered in the Sonoran Desert at a campground 15 miles west of Tucson, Arizona. There, a neighborly bobcat paid regular visits to a watering hole adjacent to our site. It ignored us (and our Doberman pinscher), as long we stood or sat quietly while it paused to check us out, drink its fill, and stroll away.
You may have heard stories about bobcats being spotted in the outer suburbs of larger cities or in small towns. It’s rare, but it happens when prey are very scarce and the cats are desperate to find their next meal. And yes, sometimes, that meal is someone’s pet dog or cat. When their bellies scream, “Feed me!” about the only places they won’t venture are cities or areas with heavy industry.
Bobcats don’t keep regular hours. They may be active during the day or night, depending upon the season, but their hunting time is usually limited to the dawn or dusk hours.
If you’ve never seen a bobcat, here’s a brief description: They stand 17 to 23 inches tall and weigh approximately 20 pounds, with the males being somewhat larger and heavier than the females. The pelage, or fur, is typically light brown to reddish brown in color. But as with other critters, the coat of a northern bobcat is darker, and frankly more beautiful, than that of their lighter, duller, desert counterparts. Nonetheless, all bobcats enter the world with spotted fur, and the spots fade by the time they are grown.
Bobcats have large, dark ears with tufts of hair at the tips. The long hairs growing on the side of a bobcat’s face give the appearance of sideburns. Their tails are short and tipped with black on the upper surface, and white on the underside. (When a female has kittens walking behind her, it helps to have a white “flag” for them to follow.)
Bobcats are extremely well-designed for hunting. They see and hear far better than humans. They have large, soft pads on the bottom of their feet that allow them to sneak up and pounce without alerting their prey.
They also have sharp, retractable claws, just like a house cat. That way, when the bobcat pounces on its prey, it can firmly grasp the animal. This feature also makes it easy to tell bobcat tracks from those of a dog. Dog toenails aren’t retractable “” cats’ are.
Like other hunters, bobcats go after the most abundant prey, mostly rabbits and rodents. But they’ll occasionally supplement their diet with small mammals such as squirrels and chipmunks. That isn’t to say they refuse an occasional bird, amphibian, or reptile if the opportunity arises.
Male bobcats also are known to track deer on occasion. It seems ridiculous, considering that the cats are so much smaller than their prey, but when other food is scarce and the targeted deer is either sick or injured, the bobcat will not hesitate to attack. Obviously, the amount of meat is much more than a bobcat can eat at one feeding, so after a hearty meal, the cat drags its deer to a protected spot and covers it with dirt and debris. That way it will be able to eat again, at least until the meat rots. Interestingly, even with increasing numbers of humans invading their habitat, bobcats do not look upon us as prey.
Except during the breeding season, bobcats lead a solitary life. The size of a home range can vary from less than one square mile to more than 20 square miles, depending on the season and the availability of food. Males roam farther than females, and while they don’t particularly welcome the presence of other males, their home ranges may overlap. Because bobcats live in varied surroundings, they may den under fallen logs or in hollow trees; in small caves; or in rock outcroppings “” as long as the den provides safety and protection from the weather.
Bobcats breed throughout the year, but most commonly from February to June. After a brief courtship, the pair mates, and the male typically leaves the rest to the female. Litter size varies, but most number two to four kittens. The youngsters aren’t very active for the first 10 days after birth, but once their eyes open, they’re eager to begin exploring.
The kittens will be weaned at about 10 weeks, but they’ll hang around with the mother for up to a year. There’s so much for them to learn, such as how to fill their own bellies.
As the kits grow, the female starts bringing live animals (such as mice) to the den to help the youngsters develop their hunting skills. Naturally, the kittens think they’re playing at first, but as they continue to grow and the quantity of food served doesn’t, they have to get serious about finding their own meals. The length of the learning process depends on the availability of small prey near the den. But as their hunting skills grow along with their appetites, they gradually begin pouncing on larger animals.
Life expectancy for bobcats is approximately 12 years in the wild “” depending on the availability of food and predators “” and can be up to twice that long in captivity. If you’re camping in an area where you’ve seen bobcats or know they are around, remember: you don’t have to stay awake at night worrying about them eyeing you for their next meal. Humans might be slow movers, but we’re so unpredictable that bobcats prefer wild prey for dinner. Still, keep your pets and small children within a comfortable distance.