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Art Lander’s Outdoors: The Bobcat is a secretive carnivore found in forests across the Commonwealth


Bobcats (Photo by Summer M. Tribble, Wikipedia Commons)

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth article in an occasional series about furbearers in Kentucky.

The Kentucky Wildcat, the mascot of University of Kentucky (UK) sports teams, is a party animal on the sidelines who encourages cheering crowds at games and thrives in the limelight.

But its namesake, the Bobcat (Lynx rufus), is quite the opposite. This quiet, secretive carnivore of the forest is seldom seen, even by the most active stream fisherman, hunter, hiker, camper or nature enthusiast.

“They are not often observed in the wild,” said Laura Palmer, furbearer biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR). “Their coloration and the spotted, streaked patterns on their fur make them blend in well with vegetation and leaves on the forest floor.”

Another reason they are so elusive is that they are most active in the low light of dusk and dawn, and during a few hours each night. Bobcats have acute vision and hearing, and a good sense of smell, so they are fully aware of their surroundings.

Not out and about during daylight hours, Bobcats lay up in rock crevices, thick brush, uprooted trees or hollow logs, and may have multiple dens throughout their home range.

In an article Palmer wrote that Bobcats “go unnoticed as they slip through the shadows and tree lines. The widespread use of trail cameras has made many landowners aware of bobcats on their properties.”

(Photo from KDFWR)

Geographic Range and Distribution in Kentucky

The geographic range of the Bobcat extends from seven provinces in Canada, southward through most of the Lower 48 states, into northern Mexico.

The survey Bobcat Population Status and Management in North America, published in June, 2010, in the Journal of Fish and Wildlife Management, revealed large-scale population increases across the cat’s range. At the time the survey was published, the Bobcat population in Kentucky was estimated to be about 14,000 and increasing.

“Scare in Kentucky in the 1970s, Bobcats have made an impressive comeback and now occur in every Kentucky county,” said Palmer. “They are least abundant from Frankfort northward, in north-central Kentucky.” Using recent harvest data as an indicator, the highest populations are in the western third of the state.

In 2011 the U.S. Forest Service listed 12 subspecies of the Bobcat based on morphological characteristics. The first description of the Bobcat in scientific literature was made in 1777.

Hunting and Trapping

The Bobcat is one of 12 furbearers hunted or trapped in Kentucky. This season was 111 days long, and ended February 29, 2020.

Telecheck reports of Bobcats taken are posted on the KDFWR website. This season’s harvest was 2,123 as of February 29, 2020, with 981 taken by hunters and 1,142 taken by trappers. The sex ratio of the harvest was 52.9 percent female and 47.1 percent male.

Leading counties in the harvest were: Hopkins, 61; Crittenden, 49; Grayson, 48; Butler, 44; Pike, 42; Trigg and Morgan, 38; Breckinridge, 36, Ohio, 35, and Webster, 34.

Trapping Today’s 2019-2020 Fur Market Forecast reported “huge price difference between the high and low ends of pelt quality. Top Bobcat pelts from the western U.S., with wide white, spotted bellies are still in demand for the high-end fashion market and should continue to average $300 to 400. Bobcats from most other parts of the country should average $30 to 60.”

Bobcat fur is used to make coats and hats. Full-body taxidermy mounts are popular with UK sports fans.

In Kentucky, and throughout the Bobcat’s range, biologists monitor populations by various methods. This includes harvest trends, surveys to measure the effort required to trap Bobcats, tooth samples to age Bobcats, trail camera surveys, snares that collect hair for DNA analysis, and GPS collaring to track movements of individual cats in their home range and measure survival.

Size and Coloration

Palmer said the average female Bobcat in Kentucky weighs about 14 pounds and the average male about 22 pounds, but occasionally a male will approach 30 pounds.

(Bobcat Photo by Alan Vernon Wikipedia Commons)

Adults may be 32 to 48 inches long and stand more than 20 inches at the shoulders.

The Bobcat’s fur is tan to reddish-brown or gray, interspersed with black spots. The belly fur is white, with black spots. The inner legs are marked with bold black bars and there are white spots on the backs of their ears, which are tufted with black hairs.

Greenish-yellow eyes with round, black pupils stare out from its whiskered face. The tail is bobbed, about six inches long.

A Bobcat’s track looks similar to a house cat’s track, but it is larger, measuring about 1 1/2 inches long and 1 3/8 inches wide.

Most Bobcats taken by hunters or trappers are less than four years old, but it is not uncommon for one to be 10 to 13 years of age. “The oldest Bobcat aged from the wild in Kentucky was 16 years old and was taken in Whitley County during the 2013-14 season,” said Palmer.

Habitat

In Kentucky, Bobcats thrive in a wide variety of habitats. This includes bottomland forests along large rivers, cypress swamps and other wetlands, remote mountainous areas with rocky cliff lines, and brushy field edges adjacent to large tracts of forestland.

The home range of a male Bobcat is generally twice as large as a female’s and may overlap with other males and multiple females.

Bobcats mark their territory boundaries with feces, urine, gland secretions and tree scratchings. Males do not tolerate other males in their core area.

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

Food Habits

Bobcats are carnivores, strictly meat-eaters.

They feed on mice, rats, rabbits, muskrats, opossum, birds, insects, reptiles, deer and beaver.

They rarely attack domestic animals.

They are stealthy and patient while hunting.

“Bobcats stalk or ambush their prey. Once ready to pounce, the Bobcat moves with a sudden burst of speed. Bobcats are agile tree climbers and good swimmers,” said Palmer.

Their scat contains a large proportion of hair and bones. Other sign that might be encountered is a cache, a carcass that a Bobcat has covered with leaves, grass, or pine needles for a later meal.

Reproduction

During the breeding season, Bobcats vocalize to attract mates.

Bobcats are loners for most of the year, but they pair up to mate and the male stays with the female when she is raising their kittens.

They are polygynous as a male might mate with more than one female. Breeding takes place from January through March.

Gestation is 62 days and the litters averages two to three kittens, born in a nest of leaves and grasses within a brush pile or rock crevice.

Kittens emerge from the den when they are about a month old and stay with their mother until the next breeding season.

Kittens and young bobcats are preyed upon by hawks, owls, foxes, domestic dogs and coyotes.

The Bobcat, aka the Wildcat, is an iconic wildlife species in Kentucky. This beautiful native cat that roams our remote woodlands is the very essence of a stealthy predator at the top of the food chain.

And make no doubt about it, the Wildcat may be small in stature but is ferocious in attitude. If you have ever heard their screams echoing through the timber it’s a sound you won’t soon forget.


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