Bobcats are shy, elusive, nocturnal, successful
In the weeks before Christmas, friends of a friend told me about a bobcat sighting they had while hiking on a trail in southern Essex County. And not long after that, a very dear friend of mine who lives in the same area sent me a couple of photographs she’d taken of a mound and scratch marks she’d discovered in her yard. She told me that she’d also found what appeared to be claw marks on a nearby tree trunk. A bit of research confirmed that both were signs of a bobcat.
Bobcats will cover up their scat (feces) with loose soil, snow, or leaves and leaf litter, much like a house cat will do with the litter in a litter box, using their hind feet to push materials into a mound. The mound, or pile, will be either at the end of a long scratch or at the center of several scratches from all directions.
These scrapes, as they’re known, also serve as independent scent markings. Bobcats are highly territorial and mark their ranges with scents from their urine and feces and with claw marks on trees, which alert others to their presence. Male bobcats will also spray, leaving a strong and unmistakable odor behind. If you’ve ever lived with a male cat that sprayed, you know just what I’m talking about.
Bobcats are solitary animals and are largely regarded as nocturnal, although they may be active at any time of the day or night. Contact with humans is rare, and they are not known to attack people. Sightings are regularly reported throughout the state, but occur most frequently in the Adirondack and Catskill mountains. Bobcats are not considered endangered or threatened in New York, and sustainable harvest opportunities exist in many areas.
Males have larger home ranges than females and travel greater distances on a daily basis. According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the average home range of a male American bobcat (Lynx rufus) in the Adirondacks is 136 square miles. The average female home range is 33 square miles. In the Catskills, the average male home range is just 14 square miles, while the female average is 12. Home ranges may be smaller in areas of better-quality habitat than in areas where habitat is not as good.
Bobcats are medium-sized cats. Males are generally one-third larger than females. Adults stand roughly 15 to 24 inches at the shoulder. According to DEC, the average body length for a male bobcat is 34 inches, 30 inches for a female. The average weight for a male is 21 pounds, 14 pounds for a female. They are named for their “bobbed” tails, which are black-spotted and usually between 5 and 6 inches long. The ruff of fur and whiskers around the sides of their faces is characteristic. Ear tufts may or may not be present.
Their soft, dense coat varies in color from light grey to reddish brown, generally shorter and more reddish in the summer and longer and grayer in the winter, and is randomly barred and spotted with black or dark reddish brown. They sport whiter fur on their underside. The fur pattern and coloration provides camouflage, which helps them hide in the surrounding environment while stalking prey or resting.
Albino bobcats have been reported.
Bobcats are predators that thrive predominantly on a diet of small mammals. Cottontail rabbits are preferred, but they eat mice, voles, rats, squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, birds, muskrats, other small prey and insects as well. Occasionally, they will kill a larger animal (e.g. turkey, fawn, beaver) and cover the carcass, frequently returning to feed on it. They are also scavengers and, when food is scarce, will eat carrion, the carcasses of dead animals that they come upon.
A conservation success story
Bobcats are widely distributed across a diversity of habitats within the United States and southern Canada and are, more often than not, considered the most established wild cat in North America. Populations are stable or growing, with 12 recognized sub-species that vary by geographic range. But it hasn’t always been that way.
For centuries they were considered a harmful predator species and heavily hunted as nuisances and for their beautiful, and therefor prized, fur coats. As recently as the 1970s, they lacked legal protection in 40 states, where they could be killed on sight and shot or trapped year-round, without limit. Three states, North Dakota, Texas and Wyoming, continued to allow year-round harvest into the 1980s.
Many northern New York counties paid bounties on bobcats before 1971, when the state Legislature passed a law ending such payments. DEC closed a large portion of the state to bobcat harvest after 1976 and, beginning in 1977, started a pelt tagging system to track bobcats harvested by hunters or trappers in some areas.
A management plan for bobcat in New York state was completed in October of 2012. The plan provided direction and oversight for sustaining or enhancing the abundance, enjoyment and utilization of bobcats throughout the state. The plan permitted the continued trapping and hunting of bobcats and proposed new or expanded seasons in some areas, while also improving monitoring programs to ensure a sustained population.
The eastern bobcat is the only large cat species still found, at least in significant numbers, in New York state.