Not Just Any Cat

Adapted from an Article by Naturalist Rosemary Flynn that appeared in the June 2006 edition of Tracks.

The word is out: several recent sightings indicate that there is at least one bobcat at Upper Newport Bay. This is exciting for several reasons. First of all, they are extraordinarily beautiful, clever animals of a character rarely associated with urban or metropolitan areas. In addition, as an indicator species of habitat connectivity, their presence suggests that efforts to create habitat linkages are paying off. They are reclusive, however, and their habits less familiar to most of us. With this in mind, the following offers a primer on the species and their role in the ecosystem, supplemented with some tips for being around them.

As a member of the Lynx family, the bobcat has characteristically long legs, large paws, tuft ears, cheek ruffs (muttonchops), thick fur and loping gait. Large specimens can weigh up to 30 pounds, but the average bobcat is only 15 to 20 pounds. Size and color vary depending on geography as well as with gender. Those found in forests and heavy brush are darker with rust tones, while those found in desert and chaparral regions generally are a paler tawny-gray, often with a complete absence of spots on the back and less distinct markings. Males are typically larger than females. Like all Lynx, bobcats are agile climbers as well as swimmers and use stealth in hunting, often waiting hours near a trail for prey to come within their 10-foot spring range. They are, however, relatively short-winded and unable to withstand a chase.

Whatever stamina they may lack is compensated for by their excellent night vision (their eyes have special light reflectors behind the retina), well developed hearing (ear tufts help serve as antennae) and a discriminating sense of smell (enhanced by Jacobean organs in the upper gum).

Despite its pussycat appearance when in repose, the bobcat is quite fierce and is equipped to kill animals as large as deer. Reportedly, its growls and snarls are often deep and fearsome enough to suggest a larger animal. Food habit studies, however, have shown bobcats subsist on a diet of rabbits (its preferred food), ground squirrels, mice, pocket gophers and wood rats. The bobcat roams freely at night and is frequently abroad during the day except at the peak of summer. It does not dig its own den. If a crevice or a cave is not available, it will den in a dense thicket of brush or sometimes choose a hollow in a log or a tree. In urban settings it may den beneath the patio deck of a house.

Bobcats occupy areas from 1/4 of a square mile to as much as 25 square miles, depending on type of habitat and sex. Typically, female bobcats occupy smaller areas than males and tend not to associate with other females. Males roam more widely than females and maintain ranges that overlap those of both sexes, despite a lack of tolerance for other males. Mating behavior is similar to domestic cats with the young being born in early Spring after a three-month gestation period. The normal bobcat litter consists of 2 or 3 kittens, often birthed in a rock crevice or burrow.

Born blind, the kittens open their eyes after 10 days and are taught hunting skills by their mother until they leave her at age 9 or 10 months. The father has no role in raising the offspring. Males are usually fertile by their first year, but females do not usually give birth to their first litter until they are two years old (at least according to most of the literature). Females normally produce just one litter per year. As a general rule, bobcats are solitary animals with males and females spending only a few days of the year together, those being during courtship and mating.

In the wild, bobcats may live 12–15 years while those in captivity have been known to live as long as 25 years. Young bobcats appear as lovable and harmless domestic kittens but because they are wild animals and potentially dangerous, it is illegal to keep bobcats as pets without special permits.