Bobcats are common in our area, though rarely seen
Bobcats are one of the most elusive and secretive native species of mammals common in Minnesota. Not very well understood by most people, fewer still ever observe them. Granted, they are mostly nocturnal by nature, but rest assured these amazing ...
Bobcats are one of the most elusive and secretive native species of mammals common in Minnesota. Not very well understood by most people, fewer still ever observe them. Granted, they are mostly nocturnal by nature, but rest assured these amazing animals are more numerous than many people realize.
An interesting behavior of bobcats is that they are quite literally “creatures of habit.” I remember many years ago when I went on a moonlit snowshoe hike along a partially frozen creek when I came upon the tracks of a bobcat. The pugmarks in the snow were fresh and so I followed the animal’s trail for a time. I was curious about where the wild cat was heading.
The bobcat kept itself close to the creek, sometimes walking right along the bank and other times diverting slightly from the edge of the main channel to skirt the upland thickets. I couldn’t help but imagine that this secretive animal, rarely seen by people, was probably hunting - perhaps for a hare, muskrat, beaver, vole, or maybe even a small deer.
The predator was prowling within its territory; its senses undoubtedly on high alert - the sensitive ears, sharp eyesight, and keen sense of smell. Perhaps, too, the cat’s whiskers were assisting the cat to essentially feel its way through the tangles of vegetation.
The bobcat’s trail led to the side of the creek where the bank was high and undercut from springtime flooding. Underneath the ledge of frozen sod was a beaver dam anchored to both sides of the narrow and actively flowing creek. I noticed that the cat had negotiated the passage many times before. Any less nimble creature, or those unfamiliar with the terrain (like me!), might experience difficulty because the maneuver demanded attention and sure footedness.
The wild cat had placed its feet in precisely known spots scarcely large enough for one paw at a time on a narrow shelf of sand barely above the water and then onto the ice and snow-covered, stick and mud strewn dam. I tried following the cat tracks across the entire precarious span of dam, but, not being able to maintain the high-wire act of balance above frigid waters for very long in the dark of night, I was forced to abort the pursuit and turn around for dry land.
As everyone knows, bobcats acquired their namesake because of the length of their tail. The word “bob” means a short or shortened tail. And one look at the bobcat’s tail reveals that the animal is aptly named. A bobcat’s tail is only about four to seven inches long. And though lynx and bobcats both have nearly identical looking short tails, a good field identification marking is, surprisingly, the tail itself. The tips of each species of cats’ tails are black, but the lynx’s tail is black all around the tip, whereas a bobcat tail has its dorsal side colored black while its underside is whitish.
The spotted coats of bobcats give them an almost leopard-like appearance. It is one of the reasons the animals are sought by fur trappers and fur buyers. After the United States banned the importation of exotic furs from spotted wild cats, such as leopard, jaguar, cheetah, and the like, bobcat furs became more valuable. Prior to that, bobcats were considered by many state fish and game departments as varmints. Bounties were paid in some states as recently as the 1970’s. Interestingly, bobcats retain their spotted coats as adults, whereas mountain lions have spots only as kittens and lose the spots as they mature.
Even though bobcats resemble your average domestic housecat, adult bobcats are generally much larger and heavier muscled animals. Males, or toms, range anywhere from twenty to thirty pounds and are as long as three feet from nose to tail. Some exceptional specimens top out at over 40 and 50 pounds. Naturally, bobcats are adequately sized for the role they play in nature.
Like all cats, including most domestic cats, bobcats are efficient hunters. Their diet includes a host of prey species from small to medium-sized rodents such as mice, voles, and squirrels, to larger prey like porcupines and deer fawns. They will also hunt and eat fish, birds, rabbits, and snowshoe hares. Bobcats have even been known to attack and kill adult deer.
Vocalizations are very similar to what we are accustomed to hearing from domestic cats. Bobcats growl, hiss, purr, meow, and snarl. During mating season the normally solitary bobcat form pair-bonds, and it is during these times when the wild cats become even more vocal. Female bobcats give birth in the spring, usually in February through April, to litters of kittens numbering anywhere from three to six. Only the female cares for and raises the youngsters. The kittens’ mother teaches every survival skill that is learned.
I am grateful that there are common, though rarely seen, species of wildlife like bobcats living right under our noses. Part of the reason we see so few bobcats is because of the cat’s nighttime habits, but even so, knowing that native and wild bobcats are hunting the river bottoms and forests in our own backyards is sure to delight us as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
(Klemek is a DNR Wildlife Manager. You can contact him at email@example.com .)