By Jill J Easton
A gray shape flowed rather than paced across the path, framed by thick fingers of fog that ebbed and flowed. She stopped, looked my way. I could make out a short twitching tail and a rabbit’s long ears and feet dangling from her mouth. She dematerialized rather than left. Her two kittens stopped to tussle briefly on the open path then galloped to catch up with mom. This morning, opening a rabbit, they would get their first lesson in being a predator.
I had just witnessed a rare sighting of one of the most seldom seen crepuscular (dawn and dusk) predators in the outdoor world, Lynx rufus, the bobcat, or wildcat. These wary cats range in size from eight pounds for a young female up to 35 pounds for male western cats.
Bobcats are creatures of the shadows, they blend into their hunting areas with a mottled back and sides that are gray or brown, dark wavy lines and splotches. This exceptional camouflage makes them nearly invisible in brushy areas and undergrowth. Oddly, a bobcat’s stomach fur can range from shiny white to dull tan and most bobcat bellies are sprinkled with spots that are usually black. Their tails are short and frequently in motion, hence the name bobcat, or bob-tailed cat as they were originally known.
Their northern cousin, the Canadian lynx, is also found in the United States but is much larger, has black tufts of hair on the ear tips, and does not have the spotted belly that makes bobcats so desirable for fur coats. Bobcats and lynx occasionally crossbreed in Canada and the northern tier states, the offspring are called blynx.
Wildcats have many enemies, but few predators. Their fast speed over short distances, claws, teeth, and ability to climb trees to escape danger makes them too much work for most coyotes, dogs or bears.
Bobcats are armed in all directions. Their raking claws, sharply-pointed canines, and ability to twist and flex in midair discourages less well-armed enemies. They use stealth and camouflage to catch food. A bobcat kills by pouncing with its frequently-sharpened claws, biting into the neck or disemboweling with kicks of its muscular back legs.
In many rural areas, bobcats are a major reason why rabbits aren’t taking over. A female rabbit can produce 30 offspring a year, so bobcats perform a worthwhile service for farmers and gardeners by controlling rodent numbers. These cats will also steal a fresh meal of carrion such as dead deer or pigs. Big food means big eating for a bobcat. One smallish female on our property ate almost half of a 30-pound beaver carcass in one night. When she finished, her rib cage looked deformed she was so stuffed. After her gluttony, she carefully covered the beaver’s remains with leaves and sticks and then urinated repeatedly over the pile, a warning to crows, coons, and other smaller competitors that the beaver remains were private property.
Travel is the bobcat way, especially for males. A mature male bobcat may have a range as big as 25 square miles, but several bobcats, especially females, often inhabit the same territory. The mature males go where their noses send them, smelling for the next available girlfriend or meal.
Bobcat tracks in mud or snow are unique. Like many animals, a bobcat has four toes, but since their claws are retractable, they don’t leave claw marks. A track will appear to have only two prints in a single line since the back paw is generally covering the front pad mark. Bobcat size can be determined by the space between tracks.
Scat is another excellent way to identify a bobcat. Their poop is segmented and each part will be about two to five inches depending on what they have been eating and the size of the cat. Bobcat feces will almost always contain fur or feather bits. If you see persimmon or other seeds it’s not a bobcat, and most likely is a raccoon or coyote. Aged bobcat poop in the open will turn chalky white and they often leave several piles close together. Like most cats, bobcats make an attempt to scratch dirt over their leavings, these scratch marks are another good bobcat indication.
Bobcat, or any cat feces, is a coyote and dog snack favorite, according to Dr. Phil Gibson, a biologist studying predators. Both wild and tame canines are coprophagic, which is a 50-cent word meaning they eat poop; cat feces supply a nutrient that dogs crave.
Bobcats can be found in all kinds of terrain from downtown Houston, Texas to up high in the Rocky Mountains, but they prefer woods with brushy undergrowth and protected caves or hollow logs. Females usually birth their kittens in these sheltered locations in April or May. Young bobcats are born blind and without hearing, and at about 10 days their eyes and ears open and they start eating meat along with mother’s milk. Mom will probably move her two or three kittens several times before they are weaned. Male bobcats attempt to breed multiple females each year and don’t get involved with child care. They will often kill kittens if they are left unprotected.
Many states allow hunting and trapping for bobcats and in many areas the populations are stable or growing.
Try a hike into a wild area or field edge around dusk or dawn. You will see a wealth of wildlife that live their lives in the dusky times, coons, rabbits, deer, and a variety of other animals that generally sleep away the daylight. If you are supremely lucky you may see something; it could have been a shadow or a memory in the graying light. Nope. You have been extremely lucky and experienced your first bobcat sighting.