Summit Outside – The Bobcat: one tough critter
The bobcat – or wild cat – is about twice the size of a domestic cat, but if you’ve actually seen one, you’re lucky because they are very elusive. It is a native species found throughout Colorado and most of continental United States. This cat species is believed to have evolved from the Eurasian lynx, which crossed into North America by way of the Bering land bridge over a million years ago. The first wave moved into the southern portion of North America, which was soon cut off from the north by glaciers. This population evolved into modern bobcats around 20,000 years ago. A second population arrived from Asia and settled in the north, developing into the modern Canada lynx. Hybridization between the bobcat and the Canada lynx may sometimes occur.
Canada lynx and bobcats are about the same size and look much alike, but bobcats have smaller feet and shorter fur with more obvious spots. Bobcats are 32-37 inches long with a stubby tail about 6 inches in length giving it a “bobbed” appearance, hence its name. The largest bobcat on record weighed 48.9 pounds. The bobcat is muscular, and its hind legs are longer than its front legs, giving it a bobbing gait. Mountain lion kittens are sometime confused with bobcats because they are spotted, but young mountain lions have distinctly long tails. The bobcats’ ears are black-tipped and pointed, with short black tufts, and the lips, chin and undersides are off-white in color. The face appears wide due to ruffs of hair extending beneath the ears.
You’re more likely to spot a bobcat’s tracks in the snow than see one. Bobcat tracks show four toes without claw marks, due to their retractable claws. The tracks can range in size from 1 to 3 inches. When walking or trotting, the tracks are spaced roughly 8 to 18 inches apart. When running, the bobcat can make strides from 4 to 8 feet. Like all cats, the bobcat directly registers: Its hind prints usually fall exactly on top of its fore prints. The bobcat does not move well in deep snow and will wait out heavy storms in sheltered areas. It lacks the large, padded feet of the Canadian lynx and cannot support its weight on snow as efficiently.
The bobcat plays an important ecological role in control of its prey populations. It is an adaptable predator that inhabits wooded areas, as well as semi-desert, urban edge, forest edges and swampland environments. It has sharp hearing and vision, and a good sense of smell, is an excellent climber and will swim when it needs to, but will normally avoid water. Like most wild cat species, the bobcat is territorial and largely solitary, although there is some overlap in home ranges. It uses several methods to mark its territorial boundaries, including claw marks and deposits of urine or feces. The bobcat is crepuscular, a term describing activity around twilight. It keeps on the move from three hours before sunset until about midnight; from before dawn until three hours after sunrise. Each night it will range from 2 to 7 miles along a habitual route. Bobcats may become active during the day in fall and winter as a response to the activity of their prey, which are more active during the day in colder months. The main diet of bobcats is rabbits. They will also eat mice, voles and birds, and can prey on animals that are eight times their own weight such as deer and sheep. When the bobcat finishes eating its prey, it will sometimes cover up the remaining portions with sticks or leaves, and return to eat at a later time. They hunt by stealth rather than engaging in long chases. A bobcat will sometimes sit on rocks or overhanging branches and pounce.
The bobcat breeds from winter into spring and females have a gestation period of about two months, producing a single litter of around three kittens. Bobcat dens have been found in a variety of places including caves, rock shelters, dense brush piles and even abandoned buildings. Females move the kittens to several different den sites over the course of kitten rearing, and have been observed to move kittens from their birth den to auxiliary dens up to five times. The young are weaned at about eight weeks of age.
Bobcats are said to symbolize “sight” among the Irish, and it was believed bobcats could see through walls in medieval times. In a Shawnee tale, the bobcat is outwitted by a rabbit, which gives rise to its spots. After trapping the rabbit in a tree, the bobcat is persuaded to build a fire, only to have the embers scattered on its fur, leaving it singed with dark brown spots. Bobcats are depicted as the mean, feisty, tough guy that can whip a much larger animal. The name “Bobcats” has been adopted by many athletic teams: There’s the Charlotte Bobcats, the Ohio Bobcats, Montana State Bobcats, Texas State Bobcats, and the list goes on. The “Bobcat” is the name of heavy equipment company and their slogan is “One tough animal!”
Breckenridge resident Dr. Joanne Stolen is retired from teaching microbiology Rutgers University, and has taught classes at CMC. She is now pursuing a career in art, specializing in nature and many of the animals she writes about. Her work can be seen locally.
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