by Beverly Letchworth,
What is one of the largest wild mammals in Missouri? What large mammal sometimes sleeps on and hunts from tree limbs? What mammal can make leaps up to 10 feet? The answer to all three questions: the bobcat.
The bobcat is found only in North America, where it is the most common wildcat. This handsome animal has tufted ears, a tawny coat with black spots and a ruff of fur that flares from its cheeks and neck.
The bobcat gets its name from its stubby or “bobbed” tail, which is only 4 to 6 inches long. The rest of the cat’s body may be from 2 to 4 feet long. Bobcats weigh up to 40 pounds.
Its spotted fur camouflages it well as it hunts for food. Unlike coyotes, for example, which usually trot along when hunting, the bobcat hunts slowly, frequently stopping and sitting for minutes at a time as it studies its environment. It uses its acute sight and hearing more than its sense of smell to find prey.
When the bobcat does spot prey, it lowers itself into a crouch and creeps slowly forward. Bobcats place their front feet down so carefully and noiselessly that their prey does not hear them coming. Then, as they move forward, they place their hind feet in the same spots, so no extra sound is made. When it’s close enough, the bobcat leaps and pulls down the victim with its sharp claws.
“The bobcat’s diet is 70 percent rabbit,” says Dave Hamilton, a resource scientist and furbearer biologist at the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Resource Science Center in Columbia. Bobcat diets also include a variety of small mammals, such as shrews, mice, squirrels and opossums; birds, such as wild turkeys and quail; and, occasionally, deer.
Because there is too much meat on a deer to eat at one time, the bobcat caches or covers it with ground litter. It may come back and feed on the remains later. However, if other food is plentiful, it may not bother to return for the meat.
Bobcats sometimes prey on domestic stock, such as chickens, turkeys, piglets, sheep and goats, but they’re not really a threat to farmers. They may also eat carrion (dead animals) if food is scarce.
These wildcats can live almost anywhere, from swamps, forests and farmlands to scrubby and arid regions, as long as there is some cover to hide in. They often rest in caves or hollow trees and under rock overhangs.
Hunting for Bobcats
About 3,000 bobcats are taken each year by hunters and trappers. Where bobcats are plentiful and in the counties where the practice is legal, they often are hunted using dogs.
Missouri bobcat hunting and trapping season begins Nov. 15 and closes Feb. 15. See the Wildlife Code for regulations.
In Missouri, bobcats used to be restricted to the Ozarks and the southern area of the state. Now, Hamilton reports, “There are between 12,000 and 18,000 bobcats in Missouri. They are increasing dramatically.” He explains that years ago, when there were many farms, farmers shot any bobcat that happened upon their land, thus reducing their numbers.“But over the years, as families left the farms, bobcats increased and expanded their range in Missouri,” says Hamilton. “Bobcats have increased all over the Midwest. There’s a small but growing population in Ohio, Illinois and Indiana.”
Bobcats are crepuscular, meaning they’re most active in the few hours before and after sunset and sunrise. Mostly they remain on the ground but easily take to a tree if chased by dogs, charged by deer, or in need of a rest. They swim well but don’t like being in the water.
Bobcats are curious animals. If you followed one, you would see it make a zigzag trail as it investigated its environment.
If you were to find and measure a bobcat track, you would see that it is 2 inches long and without claw marks. Your pet cat’s paw print is much smaller—only about 1 inch long. A bobcat’s claws retract when not in use, but when hunting and defending itself, they extend to grab, hold and rip.
Territories are important to bobcats. They mark their territories or home ranges with scent contained in scat (feces) or urine. They may urinate on a tree or object, in a scrape in the dirt they made with their paws, or on a small mound of leaves and twigs to create a scent post. They also may leave scat in prominent areas. These markings both tell other bobcats, “This is my territory, do not enter!” and help attract mates.
One scientist found 31 scent posts and two scats in less than a quarter of a mile. No mistaking that bobcat’s territory! Bobcats sometimes sharpen their claws by scraping them against a tree or log near a scent mark. This is a double warning, “Do not trespass!”
Although they usually remain quiet, bobcats can make all kinds of sounds, including hisses and growls, yowls and purrs, mews, gurgles and wah-wah calls. During mating season, they’re quite noisy, making loud yowls and howls and meows called caterwauling. These sounds can be heard a mile away.
Bobcats live alone, except during the mating season. For only a few days, the male and female stay together. Then the male leaves and goes his own way. Two or three kittens are born 50 to 70 days later in a well-hidden place the mother has found—a rock pile, cave, brush pile or hollow tree.
Kittens are blind and helpless. Each weighs about 12 ounces. The female may change dens every one to six days to make sure predators don’t find the kittens. She either carries the young to a new site, or if the kittens can walk, leads the way to a new den.
When kittens are between three and five months old, they learn one of the most important lessons of their life—how to hunt. If they can’t kill their own food, they won’t survive long.
At first, the young follow their mother on hunts to watch her tactics. Later, they practice on their own, rarely taking prey but learning from their mistakes. Finally, by the age of seven months, they know how to hunt and take care of themselves and will leave their mother to find territories of their own. Bobcats live 10 to 17 years.
Missouri’s rising bobcat population hasn’t had much of an effect on Missourians.
“People are unaware of bobcats,” Hamilton says. because bobcats are usually nocturnal, quiet and elusive, state residents have few opportunities to see or hear them.
Bobcats are prowling our woodlands, however, and they play an important role in our natural world. These skilled predators help keep rabbit and rodent populations in check and add to the wild landscape of Missouri.
The bobcat may not be the only wildcat in Missouri. There have been a few sightings of mountain lions in the state since 1994. Before that, the last documented mountain lion sighting in Missouri was in 1927. Mountain lions can weigh from 90 to 160 pounds and are about 60 to 100 inches long.
People who see a bobcat sometimes think they’ve seen a mountain lion.
“There are many false reports of mountain lion sightings in Missouri,” says Hamilton. He added that most of the photos of reported mountain lions have proven to be of bobcats.
Although it has documented a few sightings of mountain lions in Missouri, the Conservation Department does not believe the big cats are breeding and raising families here. The Department is working to determine the current number of mountain lions in Missouri today.