May/June 2010For Wildlife Watchers: Bobcat by Rob Simbeck, photograph by Phillip Jones
We need look no further than fairy tales to grasp the enmity Europeans had for predators. Wolves took the brunt of it, since lions, which once roamed widely across southern Europe, had for the most part disappeared by the 1st century A.D. Bears were extinct in England and in retreat elsewhere in Europe by A.D. 1000. Classic fairy tales, such as The Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood, with their roots in the oral traditions of early European societies, and the Greek fable The Little Boy Who Cried Wolf, all attest to the wolf's sway on the early human imagination.
When European settlers arrived in the New World, the vast North American continent was as rich with predators as it was with other flora and fauna, and settlers began hunting, trapping, poisoning and otherwise attempting to eradicate these animals. It took centuries, but the Eastern mountain lion was driven to probable extinction, and the few red wolves remaining in South Carolina are confined to an enclosure at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Sewee Environmental Education Center in Awendaw.
Two of the smaller predators native to South Carolina, the gray fox (the red fox was introduced here) and the bobcat, have used their inborn stealth and wariness to survive into the 21st century; especially for the bobcat, it has not been easy.
"Like most predators that competed with man for food, bobcats were killed with near impunity due to their potential as predators of game and livestock," says Jay Butfiloski, supervisor for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources' Furbearer project, "probably up through the time that the state really began to transition away from being primarily an agrarian society."
Bobcat - Lynx rufus
Description: Gray to brown, with facial and ear tufts, bars on the forelegs and spots otherwise. Length is 30 to 40 inches; stands 16 to 22 inches at shoulder; weighs 15 to 30 pounds.
Range and Habitat: Adaptable. Primarily deciduous or coniferous woods, but can be found from swamps to scrubland and in suburban areas.
Reproduction: Breeds in winter, with 2 to 4 young born in spring. 60-day gestation. Young stay with mother until the following winter.
Viewing Tips: Secluded wooded areas at dusk or daylight. Bobcats are more active in the daytime in winter. This is a highly elusive creature. Learning to look for tracks, scat or markings is helpful.
The bobcat is indeed a marvelous predator, combining stealth with power and quick acceleration. Bobcats prefer rabbits and other small mammals, but they can and will eat anything, from insects to deer. They will sometimes take fawns in the summer, stalking from cover or lying in wait to pounce. A bobcat can kill prey ten times its size, and it will cover what it can't eat with leaves. It is also legendarily elusive. Even now, with its population "quite secure," according to Butfiloski, sighting one is an extraordinarily rare occurrence.
It is estimated that there are between 1.4 and 2.6 million bobcats in the continental United States. Regulated hunting is thought to account for about half of their deaths annually (automobiles are a big factor as well), and the decline in popularity of this type of hunting has no doubt helped their numbers. In South Carolina, bobcats can be hunted from Thanksgiving Day to May 1 with no bag limit, and trapped from January 1 to March 1.
Bobcats are supremely adaptable, with twelve subspecies living everywhere from Florida swamps to Southwestern deserts, and from southern Canada to northern Mexico. In South Carolina, says Butfiloski, our subspecies, Lynx rufus floridanus, "appears to be most abundant in the lower coastal plain, although they certainly occur statewide."
One of four lynx species (the Canada, Eurasian and Iberian lynx are the others), the bobcat is about twice the size of an average domestic cat, from thirty to forty inches in length, with a bobbed, black-tipped tail that gives it its common name. It stands, on average, between sixteen and twenty-two inches at the shoulder, with males weighing eighteen to thirty pounds and females weighing between fifteen and twenty-two pounds. Bobcats have gray to brown-colored coats (reddish in summer), with lighter underbellies. Black spots, with dark bars on the forelegs, are typical. Bobcats also have yellow eyes and black-tufted ears (the tufts are a key indicator that what you are looking at is actually a bobcat and not a large feral house cat), sensitive whiskers and fur tufts under their ears that make their faces look wider than they are.
Bobcats are active mostly at dusk and dawn, patrolling a territory that can vary widely in size depending on their sex (males and females may share overlapping territories), the terrain and food availability. Territories are marked by scrapings and scent markings. Each bobcat will have a main den and several other secondary shelters in thickets, brush piles or hollow logs. During fall and winter they, like their prey, become more active during the day. Active creatures, they have voracious appetites, a good sense of smell, and great hearing and vision; the number of rats, mice and rabbits eaten by a single female bobcat and three kittens per year can number in the thousands.
Bobcats breed in February and March. A male and female will travel and hunt together for a few days, engaging in chasing and bumping behavior sometimes accompanied by great throaty growls; the bobcat's vocalization can have an other-worldly tenor. Both males and females may mate several times with different partners.
After two months of gestation, the female will select a secluded spot and give birth to two to four young weighing around three-quarters of a pound each. Their eyes open by day ten, they begin exploring at a month and are weaned at two months. Their mother will bring them birds and small mammals and begin teaching them to kill. They start traveling at three to five months and will be hunting on their own by the fall. By the time the female mates again the following winter, the previous year's young will be on their own.
The young bobcats are vulnerable to virtually any carnivore, including birds of prey and even adult male bobcats. The process of going out on their own, perfecting hunting techniques and establishing individual territories is fraught with peril, and juveniles have high mortality rates. They are susceptible to ticks and fleas, as well as internal parasites, some of which they pick up from rabbits and squirrels.
The state gets few nuisance calls about bobcats, says Butfiloski, who adds, "Most are from property owners who see one and just feel threatened in general."
In truth, humans don't have much at all to fear from bobcats. Irrational fear has doomed some other predators, but the bobcat's wariness of humans has worked to its advantage. Their ghostly presence in the South Carolina countryside may go unnoticed by most of us, but the bobcat remains one of our most precious wildlife treasures.