Few Americans have seen the shy and elusive bobcat (Lynx rufus). And yours truly is no exception. However, while trekking through the mountains of southern Virginia, I did hear an eerie call somewhere between a cry and a growl that to this day I believe was most likely a bobcat hiding in the scrubby brush near an open meadow.
The bobcat, also known as the bay or red lynx, is the only feline predator of the mid-Atlantic region.
Easily recognized by its reddish-brown to grayish-brown fur mottled with dark spots and bars, you'll know for sure it's a bobcat by its stubby, 6-inch tail. This white-tipped, bobbed tail gives the bobcat its name. The underside of its neck and belly are white. Tuffs of fur on the ears and face are also characteristic of bobcats.
Though small compared with other wild predatory cats, averaging 36 inches in length and 15-20 pounds in weight, the bobcat is a fierce and efficient hunter. Excellent senses of sight, smell and hearing combined with large canine teeth and retractable hooked claws make it a formidable hunter of small prey.
They hunt mostly squirrels, chipmunks, mice, rats and rabbits. But if the opportunity exists, they will go after smaller animals like frogs and insects and even larger mammals like raccoons. It is the perfect small game predator, known for creeping up on its prey quietly and ambushing it with short bursts of speed.
Although bobcats may come out during the day, they are mainly creatures of the night. Excellent night vision is due to slit-shaped pupils which open wide to admit more light. Their eyes also have many light-sensitive rods and a reflective layer that makes it easier for them to detect prey.
Found throughout much of the United States, bobcats make their homes in eastern woodlands, western mountains and deserts, and the swamps of Florida. Their ability to adapt to a wide range of habitats and climates accounts for much of their success.
Bobcats are very territorial and will mark these areas with urine feces and scent from a special gland. A female's range can extend from two to 40 square miles, rarely overlapping with other females. A male's territory may overlap with that of other males and contain female territories.
The sexes usually interact only during mating season, from late winter into early spring. After mating, the two separate and two to six kittens are born 60 days later in a secluded den or burrow.
Females guard their litters carefully, as owls, foxes and even other male bobcats may take the kittens.
Kittens are blind at birth. Their eyes open after eight or nine days and they are weaned within two months.
Kittens stay with their mothers for several more months. She teaches them to hunt by bringing live mice or other small rodents to the den for them to kill. Kittens begin to venture out at five weeks.
By nine months they may establish their own territories, but still remain near their mother until the following spring.
There have been few reports of rabid bobcats. Some bobcats are known to live up to 14 years in the wild. The highest high mortality rate occurs during their first and second winters, when younger bobcats are still perfecting their hunting skills.
Despite the bobcat's large numbers, not long ago it was considered endangered. It was hunted for its fur to the point of near extinction.
Today, the bobcat is protected in some states and hunted throughout others.
Tough and resilient, they are affected by the development of once-remote land with houses, roads and other disturbances.
These intrusions, coupled with habitat change, continue to threaten bobcats as well as other wildlife.