The bobcat is the member of the cat family that occurs only in North America. The scientific name Felis is Latin for cat and rufus is Latin for red. The name literally means red cat.
Most people call this member of the cat family the bobcat. Elsewhere it is called the wildcat, bay lynx, lynx cat, red lynx, tiger cat, barred bobcat, cat of the mountain, and pallid bobcat. In Spanish communities, it is called catamount which comes from the Spanish word, gatomonte, meaning woods or forest cat. Our French Canadian neighbors call it pichou or pichu.
Pioneers complimented a tough man by saying “He can lick his weight in wildcats.” This alluded to the bobcat’s reputation as a fierce fighter.
The bobcat looks like an overgrown tabby cat. It is about twice the size of an ordinary house cat. The male bobcat is 33-48 inches long and weights 14-40 pounds. A female bobcat is 29-37 inches in length and weighs between 9 and 36 pounds. Bobcats are about 2 feet tall at the shoulder. Overall the body is very muscular, with over 500 muscles which make it well adapted for springing to catch prey.
The bobcat’s head has a broad, rounded nose. The eyes are large with pupils that are slanted in bright lights and round in the dark. The ears are prominent, erect, and rounded with ear tufts about 1 inch high. The vibrissae (whiskers) are long and coarse. The neck is short and very muscular. Bobcats have long, fur-covered feet with retractable claws (can be pulled back into protective sheath). The back feet have 4 digits (toes) and the front feet have 5 digits. Bobcats walk on their toes (called digitigrade). These cats gained their name from their short, bobbed tail which is 6 inches long, rounded, and covered with fur.
The bobcat’s pelage (fur) is soft, fine and silky in texture. The fur on the back has a pattern of irregular dark spots and lighter splotches against a gray to yellow-brown colored background. The belly is covered with black spots against a white to gray background. The bobcat’s head has a black nose, white whiskers, striped forehead, and streaked ruff (sideburns). Its ears are gray on the back with a centered white spot, and black colored tufts (a group of hairs that stick up from top of ears). The tail is black above and white below with black bars. Its legs have irregular spots against a white or gray background. Black bars appear on the front legs.
Bobcats shed (loose old fur and grow replacement) twice a year. The summer pelage is short and redder in color. In the winter, its fur is grayer and longer in length.
Bobcats survive in a wide range of habitats. Across North American, deciduous (lose leaves in winter) forests, mountains, and even deserts support bobcat populations. The primary bobcat habitat in Michigan is deciduous forests mixed with evergreens. White or black spruce with white cedar, and balsam trees are the most commonly used evergreens. Alder, willow and aspen trees are also common in this habitat. Michigan bobcats prefer evergreen woodlands during winter months. Deciduous woods may lack the protection they need from snow, wind and low night temperatures.
Habitats containing clear-cut (all trees cut down) forest lands or recently reforested areas are ideal for bobcats. Abandoned farm fields are also excellent habitat features. This is because these areas support large rodent and rabbit or hare populations which are prey for bobcats. Therefore, some of man’s land management practices actually help the bobcat.
The presence of hollow logs, caves, or other natural openings which serve as dens are important within the habitat. Where present, sunny rock ledges or outcroppings are used heavily during the day’s activities and also serve as areas for raising litters.
Bobcats do not survive well in thick forests with little under story (plants that grow underneath trees). This habitat does not support the prey species necessary for bobcat survival.
Although bobcats can adapt to a wide variety of habitats, snow is a limiting factor in range expansion. They are not adapted to live in deep snow and liver no further north than southern Canada. Their relative, the lynx, is the cat of the far north territories.
FOOD AND FEEDING BEHAVIOR
Bobcats use hunting tactics which are characteristic of the cat family. They may follow a game trail until the prey is in sight. Then they sneak within pouncing distance and make a springing leap to capture the prey. On other occasions, they may wait ambush style along well used trails and pounce on the prey as it travels by. Bobcats do not have the physical endurance for long chases. Some bobcats drop on the back of a large animal, such as a whitetail deer, from an overhead tree limb. Bobcats normally hunt alone although a female and her kittens may work together. Sight and sound are the primary means of locating prey.
Cottontail rabbits and snowshoe hares are the chief food for the bobcat. However, they are quick to switch to whatever prey is available when the rabbit population declines. Fox, gray, red and flying squirrels and chipmunks are good prey. Bobcats also capture and eat woodchucks, opossums or beavers. Mice, voles, lemmings, shrews, and moles are common prey. Remains of house cats, raccoons, skunk, fox, and ruffed grouse have been found in bobcat stomachs. Occasionally, during times of food scarcity, reptiles, insects and snails are eaten. The bobcat very seldom eats any form of plant material.
When bobcats kill deer, they normally attack only fawns or weakened adults. These kills can be identified by the puncture wounds in the deer’s neck. Bobcats usually eat whitetail deer that were found already dead. The carcass (dead body) is frequently dragged to cover and buried to be eaten over a period of a few days.
General. The bobcat is nocturnal in behavior. They are primarily active from sunset to sunrise. Their fighting ability is legendary. Bobcats are one of the ablest fighters around. Their sharp claws are used to tear into prey or enemy. Bobcats can easily defend themselves against even a human opponent. People who have provoked a bobcat into attacking do not want to repeat the experience.
As with most cats, the bobcat is a solitary animal that only associates with other bobcats during courtship and breeding season. Bobcats are creatures of habit. They frequently use the same trails and favorite rocky areas or tree branches for sunning. These habits help hunters locate bobcats, although they are rarely seen.
Courtship/breeding. Michigan bobcats mate from March through May. Most Michigan litters are born in May following a pregnancy of 62 days. The female gives birth in a protected den. The litter consists of 1 to 4 kittens. The kits look similar to kittens of the common house cat. Their eyes are closed. They have visible claws on their feet. Kittens weigh about 12 ounces and are 10 inches long at birth. They are covered with spotted fur. At 9-10 days, the kittens eyes open and they become quite vocal. At a month of age, the mother’s milk is no longer enough food to support the kitten’s rapid growth. The female begins leaving them alone for short periods so she can eat herself and capture prey to bring back to the den. The kittens are fully weaned (no longer fed milk) at 2 months and begin following the female on hunting trips. They remain with the female until early winter when she begins preparing for a new breeding season.
Home ranges. Both sexes maintain separate home ranges from other bobcats of the same sex. The home range of a male may overlap home ranges of several females. The home range varies in size from only a few thousand square yards surrounding its den up to 4-5 square miles. The size depends on how much land is needed to satisfy its shelter and food needs. Male home ranges are typically larger than female home ranges.
The central feature of a bobcat home range is the den site and the sunny ledge or rock outcrop where most of its daily activities are centered. In lower Michigan, logs, large lower limbs of trees, or snags which are leaning on a slope serve the same purpose as the rock ledge. A bobcat frequently uses the same den for several years. Females travel about 2 miles per day around its home range, while males may travel 3-4 miles per day.
Marking behavior. Both male and female bobcats use their scent to communicate with other bobcats during breeding time. The male sprays on various objects and the female rubs against the objects to deposit scent. Their scent marking also serves to identify home ranges so that other bobcats do not intrude. Various sites around the bobcat’s home range are marked with both urine and feces. Scrapes (bare spots on the ground resulting from the bobcat scratching with its hind feet) may be nearby. The home range is maintained using these marking methods.
Locomotion. The bobcat can cover ground by making leaps from a crouched position. It walks or trots, then leaps for quick attacks. The bobcat is awkward at a gallop but can use its climbing skills to escape enemies such as lynx, bear, wolves, or dogs. On land, the bobcat can run at speeds of 12 to 15 miles per hour. When necessary, it can swim across small streams or rivers.
Voice. Bobcats make the same sounds the family’s pet cat does. These sounds include spitting, growling, puffs, hisses, whines, mews, and yowls (long, loud meow–almost a scream). Like the neighborhood cats, the bobcat’s courtship time is noisy!
Shelters/dens. Bobcats frequently have two types of dens. Some are temporary hiding areas used during one-day stays in various locations within its home range. This hiding area may be in brush piles, under rocky ledges, shallow caves, inside hollow logs, under root mass of dead trees, or even above the ground in tree holes. The natal (birth) den used as a nursery by the female is located in a well protected site.