By Erika K. Yery, Licensed Wildlife Rehabilitator
One recent January morning I got a call from a very excited woman in Great Falls, Virginia, wanting information about bobcats. She was wondering if it was possible that bobcats could live in the woods behind her house along the Potomac River. For years, she has heard on and off loud and errie, sounds during the night that sounded like noises domestic cats make, but these noises where of much greater volume than noise housecats made. There were growls, coughs, hissing, meows, spitting and snarling and occasional loud purring. During the past few nights in January, the noises got so loud and frightening that she wanted to know more about what type of animal it could be. I told her that bobcats have been observed in her area. I was curious and asked the caller for directions to her house, as I wanted to drive there quickly when she heard the noises again. After several futile attempts, by the time I reached her property, the commotion had stopped. Finally, one very cold and nasty night the call came again. I was tempted just to ignore it, but curiosity got the better of me and I did rush to the scene of the noise. This time was a success; the loud noises were still going on when I got there about an hour later. I stayed in the car and turned on my tape recorder to record these very scary and eerie noises. I wanted to check with a biologist that has worked with bobcats to confirm that these were really bobcat sounds. The recording was clear enough, that indeed the sounds were from mating bobcats. Some day I hope to go there again and perhaps, I will be fortunate enough and actually get the rare chance to see a bobcat.
Bobcats, Lynx rufus, are very solitary animals during the winter month, but in early January or February, adult male bobcats begin searching for females. There are always more females than males because males travel farther and are often killed by trappers. Male bobcats usually breed more than one female. Fights between competing males, are not unusual during this time and during breeding these loud and violent noises are common. The fights are furious and fur flies. During breeding, the male bites the females neck, and as the female quite often does change her mind, the male ends up with split ears. This can go on for some time and the noises can go on and on until mating is completed. Males will seek other females and females will not tolerate the male once the infants are born. Most breeding occurs during January and February and through early April. However, pregnant females can be found in every month of the year. Some females raise two litters a year. There are records that bobcats in captivity have had three litters in one year.
When females are expecting they prefer dens that offer a maximum of protection. Rocky caves are preferred if available. Otherwise hollow trees, hollow logs, or an earth den that has been abandoned by other animals, are used. Bobcats do little digging, but the entrance to the den can easily be identified by the odor of the urine that is always sprayed at the entrance of the den. Gestation period for the bobcat is 62_63 days. The average litter consists of three kittens. Babies are eight inched long and weigh about 8 to 9 ounces. They have a grayish brown base coat of hair with many dark spots. The babys eyes are sealed shut and when they open after 9 to 10 days, the eyes are blue. Over the next two months, the eyes will gradually turn yellow. Kittens crawl well at 3 to 4 weeks of age and the mother will start to feed them their first slivers of meat around that time. After the second months, the kittens begin to come out of the den and around 8 weeks of age the mother will begin to wean the young. Training young bobcats to stalk their prey is a lengthily process and if food is scarce, many young die of starvation. Young bobcats will stay with the mother until October, but with plentiful food supply, the young will stay with the mother through winter. By late fall, young bobcats will weigh between 10 and 12 pounds and look like smaller adults.
Bobcats are able to survive in diverse terrains. Mountain areas, swamps, desert, on farm edges and even in edges of cities. They can survive very well as long as food is available and reasonable cover and protection from detection. Bobcats do not migrate, although under extreme conditions they may be forced to shift their range temporarily. They do have and hold on to their territory. Females with kittens do most of their hunting within one mile of their den, even though their territory can be as large as six square miles. The adult male territory is often 10 times as large, often overlapping that of several males and as many as 6 to 10 females. If food is plentiful, bobcats travel just far enough to make a kill. As bobcats get most of their food by stalking or ambush, they usually do not have to travel very far.
Bobcats eat about two pounds of food per day. They prefer to eat freshly killed meat. If large prey is killed, the leftover food is covered with grass, dirt, often sticks, and the bobcat returns to the carcass before it begins to spoil. Carrion is only eaten if the animal is starving. The main diet of the bobcats consists of cottontail rabbits, jackrabbits, mice and rats. They also eat squirrels, chipmunks, skunk, beaver, muskrat, grouse, wild turkey and other ground nesting forest birds and their eggs. Bobcats also kill deer especially in winter when the deer is weak and close to starvation or when wounded or killed by hunters. When available bobcats will also kill livestock, poultry, small pigs, lambs and sheep, as well as feral and domestic cats. Although bobcats will kill housecats, there are records of the two species hybriding.
Bobcats usually walk from place to place when hunting. When running after game or trying to escape enemies, they bound along. Bobcats can run a short distance as fast as 25_30 miles per hour. They do not have an aversion for water that is common with domestic cats. Bobcats have been observed playing in water and catching fish. The sense of smell is of extreme importance in the communication. Males and females are constantly urinating on rocks, tree stumps, and grass to proclaim their presence and to claim their territory.
In the Great Falls area, near the Potomac River, in Riverbend Park, as well as other areas with large forests bobcats can be found. Since they are extremely furtive and the bobcats, Lynx Rufus, are quite often confused with the lynx, Lynx Canadensis, it is important to know how to tell them apart. The bobcat gets its name from the "bobbed" tail and the tip of the tail is always white with a black bar, the lynxs tail is all black. Both species are also called wildcats. Bobcats are only found in North America, where it is the most common wildcat. Bobcats are smaller than the lynx and weigh between 18_22 pounds. The average lynx weighs more than the bobcat, with a weight of 22_30 pounds and is not usually found in the Virginia and Maryland area.
Bobcats have few natural natural enemies. In some areas of the country enemies are trappers, the mountain lion, wolf, and coyote. In urban areas, humans and dogs are the usual enemies. Their natural defense includes speedy escapes and tree climbing. Bobcats may be inflicted with lice, fleas, roundworm, tapeworm and often mange mites. The life span is at least 10 to 12 years. Several bobcats in the Washington Zoological Park in Washington, D.C. lived over 15 years. Bobcats avoid human contact and if you can share your land, they will make good neighbors. They will keep the rodent population down.
Furbearing Animals of North America, Leonard Lee RueIII Wild Cats, Candace Savage, Sierra Club Book