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Bobcats Are Back: They're Seldom Seen, but Numbers Are Increasing

You see a cat, but it looks a bit large for a house cat. It has a short, stubby tail, the tip of which is black above and white below, short ear tufts, and ruffs on its cheeks. Its feet, while large, don’t look out of proportion with its body. Given that lynx don’t share most of these traits (tail tip is all black, ear tufts long and huge feet) and inhabit only northernmost Vermont and New Hampshire, perhaps you have been one of the very few lucky people who have spotted a bobcat.

The bobcat population in the northeast is bouncing back, and they are not nearly as rare as they were 50 years ago. According to Northern Woodlands, when forests were converted into farmland in the 1800s, bobcats thrived, along with the bobcat-trapping industry. Even in the early- to mid-1900s, trappers could get $20 per pelt in New Hampshire, and $10 in Vermont. However, as farmland was abandoned and reverted back to forest in the 1950s, the bobcat population took a dive (as did the populations of the mainstay of their diet — hares and rabbits — which thrived in the brushy growth of reclaimed fields, but suffered when the vegetation grew too tall to reach). In the 1970s bounties for bobcats ended in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, but a hunting and trapping season remains in Vermont and Maine. New Hampshire closed the bobcat hunting and trapping season in 1989, but when current research in New Hampshire is analyzed, a bobcat season may well be established. Sightings and sign have increased markedly in the past half century, indicating an increase in the number of bobcats in New England, but even so, it is the rare individual who is lucky enough to see one before it sees them and disappears.

The lack of bobcat sightings isn’t due to a lack of bobcats in our woods; it is due primarily to the highly secretive nature of this native feline, the fact that bobcats are extremely wary of humans and the fact that they are nocturnal. Were you to glimpse a bobcat, you might be surprised at its small size – they are only about twice the size of a domestic cat; the average male weighs about 21 pounds and the female, 14 pounds.

The bobcat population is resilient in part because they have adapted to a variety of habitats, including coniferous, deciduous and mixed forests, swamps and farmlands. Your chances of seeing bobcat sign is fairly good, as bobcats are enthusiastic markers, using their urine, feces and scent from their anal and foot glands to announce their presence and communicate with other bobcats. The most frequently encountered scent mark is a rotting stump or low conifer branch, on which a bobcat has backed up and sprayed urine. Bobcats also mark their territory by scratching as high as their claws can reach on dry, barkless, standing trees. Bobcat scat, segmented and tubular, is sometimes covered with leaves and dirt which are scraped over it from all directions into a pile that is roughly 12” to 18” in diameter. Occasionally bobcats will make a scrape with their back feet, often under a rock overhang, resulting in a rectangular pattern in the ground. The resulting pile of earth and leaves at one end of this scrape is then scented with secretions from glands located between the toes of the bobcat’s feet, as well as with urine. Occasionally you will find scat deposited in the scrape, as well.

The diet of a bobcat varies with the season and the availability of prey. Although known for their preference for snowshoe hares and rabbits, bobcats eat a wide variety of prey, including wild turkeys, deer, small rodents, skunks, raccoons, insects and even carrion. The manner in which bobcats, as well as most cats, secure their prey differs greatly from that of canids, such as foxes and coyotes. Unlike members of the dog family, which frequently chase down their prey, bobcats move slowly and stealthily through an area, pausing and sitting frequently, hoping to see prey before prey sees them. They generally do not cover large distances while hunting. Bobcats have what are called “hunting lays,” spots where they lay with their feet under them, ready to pounce on prey passing by.

If a bobcat manages to capture large prey, such as a weak white-tailed deer, they will sometimes cache, or cover, it where it lays, or move it to another area. Either way, they re-visit the carcass night after night until it is consumed. Bobcats aren’t able to break the large bones of a mature deer, so if you come upon a cleaned deer carcass with intact large bones, chances are great that it was the work of a bobcat.

Although bobcats are usually quiet, they can be quite vocal during their mating season, which is in late February and March. The sounds they make have been likened to that of a screaming woman, but after listening to the bobcats on http://www.soundboard.com/sb/Bobcat_sounds_audio, I would disagree with that comparison.

Even though we may never actually set eyes on a bobcat, it is good to know they are out there, and to be able to confirm their presence by the myriad of sign that they leave behind. If you know of some rocky ledges, you might head there first to look for tracks, marking posts, scrapes and scratches, as bobcats use ledges for shelter, breeding and raising their young.

Mary Holland is the author of “Naturally Curious: A Photographic Field Guide and Month-by-Month Journey Through the Fields, Woods, and Marshes of New England” and “Milkweed Visitors.” She has a natural history blog which can be found at www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com.